The learning of speech and language intrigues scientists all over the world and they wonder whether it is similar to the process of other learning, like mathematics, or whether we are speaking about a different process which is connected to a different part of the brain.
At which stage does a baby begin to understand words, and when does he manage to understand conversation, and in particular, when can he identify his own language amongst other languages? Trials have shown that even very young babies can distinguish between their mother tongue and other languages.
Much research has been carried out in various parts of the world, using very sophisticated tests. The videos showing babies as young as four months responding positively to the sounds of various languages are quite astounding. At the age of ten months, they tend to ignore other languages, and only respond positively to their own mother tongue.
Long before anyone thought of research into language acquisition, or for that matter, any other research, Chazal told us that babies absorb sounds and language around them from a very early age. R' Yehoshua's mother put his cradle into the beis midrash so that he be imbued with the sounds of Torah learning. [An example of `father tongue'.]
Some experts claim that the ability to absorb words is exactly in inverse proportion to the age. As we grow older, we find it more difficult to learn a language. Therefore, it is easier to teach a child a foreign language in his first years of life. In his first year, he will absorb more than in his second. He will cope with a linguistic challenge better in his second year than in his third, in his fourth year better than his fifth and so on. However, many linguists do not agree with this theory at all. A seven-year- old has cognitive abilities which a one-year-old does not possess. He is able to use learning strategies in acquiring a second language, which he did not have when he was learning his first language.
It is common knowledge, though, that after puberty, it is far more difficult to acquire the native pronunciation of a second language. One can obtain complete mastery of a language, grasping all the finer points of its grammar and idiom, and still speak like a foreigner.
What constitutes the acquisiton of language? Listening, speaking, reading and writing are all part of learning a language. Thus, a German scientist who can read complicated documents on his subject in another language, might claim to know the language well, even though he cannot speak a word of it. Someone who has learnt a second language at school might find it very easy to read in that language, and perhaps write correctly too, but they still cannot communicate easily.
Before considering commmunication in a second language, it is worth discussing what communication entails. Communicative skills are divided into components. There is linguistic competence, which includes the ability to recognize all the features of a language. Then there is sociolinguistic competence. This includes both the appropriateness of meaning and the appropriateness of form. There are no written rules for this competence, yet adult native users of a language know how to use them in different situations. People with autism often do not master this communicative skill, although they can speak perfectly fluently.
Strategic and discourse competence is the ability to enhance effective communication. The ability to fill in awkward pauses, to adapt one's strategies to various situations. Even to stand at the correct distance when speaking. Different cultures and countries have entirely different communicative strategies. Interruptions, for instance, which might not be tolerated in one country, are quite accepted in another. Mediterranean speakers stand nearer to each other when speaking than do the English. When mothers speak to their babies, they will notice that the baby `answers' and then waits for the mother to speak. This turn- taking is the beginning of discourse competence.
Of course, when asked whether he speaks a certain language, a person does not consider any of these abilities. They will either reply that they do, or not very well, or a little. This often depends not so much on their mastery of the language, as on the person's confidence and personality. Some people claim to speak a language fluently, yet their utterances are full of mistakes.
On the other hand, they do speak, and manage to make themselves understood, which is what communication is all about. Many adults who understand everything which is said and read the language fluently, are too self conscious to speak at all.
If a child is developing normally and understands what is said to him, and if his hearing has been found to be normal, even if he seldom speaks, there should not be cause for concern before the age of about three. If parents want children to have a second or third language, they should speak it to them. As seen, it is considerable easier for children to pick up languages in this natural, absorbing way, than to have them learn it later on in life. But parents must be aware that when this child starts school, he may not understand much of what is going on. Especially if he is a first child and has not been exposed to the language of the street at all. Even competent teachers do not always realize that the child has no learning difficulty; he is suffering from a language problem.
The underachievement of intelligent bilingual children or even monolingual children who are disruptive in the classroom and are assessed as below their actual potential, is a cause of great concern to many parents, and will be discussed in a future article.