Thursday, 14 March 2013

Thoughts From Venice

Today we have the second guest blogger to grace One Man and a Wee Bairn. Writing all way from Venice my Artistic Cousin gives her perspectives on children and language. Enjoy. 

I am in Italy, sitting with a young Italian girl called Liza. Liza is four years old. Her mother is Russian, so Liza speaks an odd mix of Italian and Russian. She doesn’t seem to realise the difference as she skips easily between the two, expecting her listener to skip with her. Nor does she realise how lucky she is- to sit between two languages, cultures and histories as most of us struggle with one.
It is as easy for a child to learn Japanese or Chinese, as French or German. Whatever place a child is born into, and whatever language is spoken at home, the child will learn that language, whether it has complicated tenses, sounds, cases or letters. And as my experience of teaching six-year-old Russian children shows, they are much better at picking up a foreign language than adults. They lack the self-awareness and embarrassment of adults; they don’t question linguistic oddities; their mouths are more fluid, and they don’t care about mistakes.
One day soon, the Wee Bairn will open his mouth and quote Shakespeare at his parents. This may well be a shock. However, all this time, his brain has been assimilating, coding, remembering, storing language. And language- whichever language- is almost inexpressibly complicated. Even the simple distinctions between “here” and “there” or “I” and “you” demand an implicit understanding of space and self.
This is not to mention the waterfall of tenses that place us in time- “I had walked”, “I walked”, “I was walking” “I will have walked”. Only when you try to explain them to a non-English speaker, do you realise how difficult they are (I was ready to strangle someone after the sixteenth attempt at explaining “I have watched…”). Russians get by with three tenses- past, present, future.
How do children learn to speak with so few mistakes?
But what fascinates me the most is the link between language and culture. The Wee Bairn was born in England to English parents so will speak English. And his understanding of English will shape- and be shaped by- the way he views the world, just as Liza’s is shaped by the fact she happened to be born to Russians in Italy. Even the Wee Bairn’s sense of humour will be influenced by his language (e.g. English puns are far easier and more common because of the large number of words in the language). He’ll even hear animal sounds differently- Russian dogs definitely do not go “woof” (neither, to be fair, do the English ones I’ve heard…). 

In the end, Liza is lucky. She has been given keys to two different worlds. For this reason, I always wince when English people say that they don’t have to learn another language because everyone speaks English, or that their children can get by with just English. This may be true, but how much richer everyone else’s world for knowing two languages; and how much poorer ours for only knowing one. The science of learning a language is as yet not fully unexplained. Learning another language is like jumping on a boat, exploring unchartered territories, and using those territories to see your homeland clearer.

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