Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Can Your L2 Affect Your L1 Negatively?

A topic that I have become very interested in lately is whether one's mother tongue (L1) can be affected and/or altered because of one's L2. 

What do you think?!  Is it possible?  For what it's worth, I will share my personal experience.  

Personally, I grew up in the United States and naturally acquired English as my mother tongue.  In school, I did not start learning a foreign language (Spanish) until I was about eleven or twelve years old.  I kept studying Spanish throughout high school and later at university.  I fell in love with the language and the Latin American culture.  My love for the Spanish language grew into a passion, and an ever-growing desire to travel to Latin American countries began to take control over me.

At university I applied for a study abroad program and chose Argentina as my destination.  Little did I know that that decision would be life-changing!  During six months in Argentina I greatly improved my Spanish, met a lot of new friends, and, most importantly, met the woman of my dream (my wife)!

My experience showed me that I was doing the right thing, the thing that I loved most: use Spanish and live the culture first hand.

I have been living in Argentina now for over six years.  My Spanish is not perfect, but most people find it hard to believe that I am not from Argentina, or that I don't have any family from here.  I have worked hard on honing my Spanish skills, but the most important factor in my learning process has been the environment in which I live.  The fact that I have to speak and listen to Spanish on a daily basis has helped me an uncalculable amount.

However, I feel that so much L2 in my life has affected negatively my L1.  I find that it is difficult for me to recall certain words in English.  For example, I have to spend more time than I should to find the word I am looking for.  I also have to confess that I use false cognates sometimes.  I have been known to switch up word order, too (i.e. speaking or writing English in a Spanish structure).  When talking on the phone with my parents, who live in the United States, I sometimes use filler words like "bueno" or "o sea".  I can only imagine what my parents must be thinking on the other line!

I have personal proof that one's L1 can be affected negatively by one's L2.  I am living proof!  At first, I was quite ashamed of this because I felt like I was the problem.  However, I have come to realize that this is a fairly natural process, especially when one's L2 proficiency is high (compounded by the fact that one is living in the L2 culture).  There is not much research done on this topic, but the research that does exist is very convincing.  

Check out Franรงois Grosjean's work to learn more about what I am referring to.  He is an expert on bilingualism. 

So, what do you think?  Do you agree with me?  Disagree?  Leave a comment!  I would love to hear your opinion and experience.  

Oh, just one more thing....  Do you think I (or other people with similar stories) will be able to "recover" my L1?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

First Language Acquisition

As I watch my son grow, I am amazed at how quickly he learns to do things.  In the beginning, he would stare blankly at lights and other bright objects.  Now, at five months old he focuses in on our (my wife and I) faces.  As I cross the room, his gaze follows me.  He is also getting better at using his hands. In the first weeks and months of his life, my son flailed his arms around wildly at times.  However, now he can pick up things (for example, a pacifier) and bring them to his mouth.  He has gotten very good at this!  Another thing, and the most amazing thing in my opinion, is how he is advancing in the area of language.  Granted, he is a baby of five months, but we have witnessed changes from day to day.  The first weeks with our son were all crying and nothing else.  Whatever he needed or wanted, he got our attention by crying.  But slowly the cries began to differentiate.  We could tell the difference between a hungry cry, a dirty diaper cry, and a “pick-me-up” cry.  Then, he began experimenting with other sounds.  He continues to practice day and night different vowel sounds, cooing and laughing!  Our hearts melt every time he smiles or gives us a big laugh.  I am eager to keep watching how my son grows and goes through the different stages.  I am so proud of my boy, but this process is happening all over the world in all kinds of languages.  How can children acquire language so perfectly and so quickly?

Children acquire their mother tongue with relative ease.  They go through different stages, advancing in their language capacities both mentally and physically.  Babies are born listening to everything.  In fact, they are listening even while inside the womb.  When they are born, infants already have language skills embedded in their brain to observe and perceive language.  At the same time, they have mechanisms that develop in a way that allow them to produce sounds (which eventually becomes language).  At around three months, babies begin to coo.  They have been listening silently and now start to laugh as well as coo.  Around five to seven months they babble in syllables (ba-ba, dee-dee).  At the end of the first year, babies usually understand some words and many even say a few.  Here, it will depend on each individual as to the rate in which they learn words and phrases.  Around 18 months, language really starts taking off, with two and three-word combinations.  During the late twos and mid threes, sentence length grows a lot and language is enhanced tenfold.  These timeframes, however, can vary from child to child.  They make more complex structures and they rarely produce weird errors.  That is to say, they make expected errors according to their stage of development.  At three years old, a child has mastered most constructions, they obey most grammar rules, and when they make mistakes, the mistakes are adult-like.

According to Noam Chomsky, language acquisition is achievable due to an inherited ability within all human beings.  He writes that there is something innate in our mind that allows us to acquire language no matter how big the obstacle in our path.  Even blind and deaf people are capable of acquiring language!  Chomsky calls this innate “thing” the Language Acquisition Device (LAD).  He claims that the LAD encodes the major principles of a language and its grammatical structures into the child’s brain. Children have then only to learn new vocabulary and apply the syntactic structures from the LAD to form sentences.  This is where Chomskys Poverty of Stimulus and Universal Grammar theories come in.  The input that a child receives from adults is rather poor and irregular, and many times ungrammatical.  How can children acquire language so quickly and so well?  There must be something innate within us!  Internal factors appear, then, to be more important than external factors.  For example, children acquire language from positive evidence rather than reinforcement from their parents. 

Chomsky does not discard social factors, but he puts more importance on individual and biological factors.  The Critical Period hypothesis (which is more important in Second Language Acquisition), for example, proposes that there is a point in an individuals life where their access to Universal Grammar is cut off, due to the lateralization of the brain.  This happens around the time of puberty, which will be different for each person.  After this point, acquiring language, in theory, becomes much more difficult. 

·         Children learning to speak never make grammatical errors such as getting their subjects, verbs and objects in the wrong order.
·         If an adult deliberately said a grammatically incorrect sentence, the child would notice.
·         Children often say things that are ungrammatical such as ‘mama ball’, which they cannot have learnt passively.
·         Mistakes such as ‘I drawed’ instead of ‘I drew’ show they are not learning through imitation alone.
·         Chomsky used the sentence ‘colourless green ideas sleep furiously’, which is grammatical although it doesn’t make sense, to prove his theory: he said it shows that sentences can be grammatical without having any meaning, that we can tell the difference between a grammatical and an ungrammatical sentence without ever having heard the sentence before, and that we can produce and understand brand new sentences that no one has ever said before.

In my opinion, Chomsky’s theories are very strong and make a great case.  There is a lot of evidence to support his claims.  As for me, I will continue to enjoy seeing my baby boy grow and acquire not only Spanish (since we live in Argentina), but English as well! 

Stay tuned for an upcoming post about Second Language Acquisition and more baby talking videos!

Check out these videos (1 - 2 - 3) to see language acquisition in action! 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Can We Save the World from the Classroom?

Is it possible to save the world from the classroom?

Pessimists might say, "No! Of course you can't change anything. Things will always be the same no matter what." On the other hand, optimists would most likely say, "You can really make a difference if you try." Now, what if you are neither pessimistic nor optimistic?

Personally, I do not believe that I can save the world from the classroom, and I doubt that you could, either. No, I'm not pessimistic. No, it's not that I don't believe in you.  Nobody can change the world by him or herself.  In the classroom, whether there are fifteen or fifty students, we are able to reach only a limited amount of lives and spend just a few hours together every week. I feel that no one person can save the world alone.

I do think, however, that we as teachers can influence others towards making a difference in the world.  If we only take our students for what their outside appearance tells us, we are missing out on much more. We're missing out on the most important thing: their potential. I may not save the world, but maybe my students can.

If you cut open an apple, it's very easy to count how many seeds it contains.  But who can look at a seed and say how many apples will grow? Much too often we overlook the potential of our students. 

Being a teacher means working with people who are preparing for the rest of their lives, but if teachers as a whole do not foster the potential of their students the world is worse off because of it.

What do you think?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Welcome and Enjoy!

Hello everyone!

Welcome to my blog, English News and Fun, where I hope to share interesting updates in the field of English teaching and learning, along with fun facts, websites, and interactive material.  Let's learn from each other!