Why Universal Grammar Changes Everything… ユニバーサル グラマーは一体なんだろう?

noam.pixCOVERTOCSometimes those that set out to learn a language or even those that want to teach it don’t give much thought to the theory behind what they’re doing. Whether you want to acquire a language, or help others acquire it, probably the most important question that could be asked is:

How do humans acquire language?

It’s a simple question, but one that breaks into many different theories about the language acquisition process. Today’s discussion point is…Universal Grammar.

Prior to Noam Chomsky language “learning” was viewed as a process similar to traditional learning. A person exposed to a body of information (the language),  through time and repetitive behavior (imitation or learning the rules), mastered the language  and fluency was achieved.

Chomsky challenged that belief by explaining that there is no way a human could learn a system as deep, expansive, and complex as a language to proficiency by their pre-school years. Instead he assumed that every human is already born with a language’s grammar built into their brain. We’re already programmed to speak language, what we need is the correct environment to activate this ability.

When looked through the lens of Universal Grammar, acquiring a language becomes much easier. The learner already has the “system” in place to learn any language: Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Uzbek, Arabic, and so on. The foundation is already there, only the right conditions need to be meet. All native-speaking children of a language are inherently born into this ideal language learning environment, and it’s up to the second language learner to create their own language learning “path” that mimics it: a massive amount of comprehensible input.

Absorb language 言語を吸収する


Developing listening skills… 言語を聞く力を伸ばす

The most helpful thing that I could tell anyone about developing listening skills in a language is that it takes time. Lots of time.

Currently in language acquisition study there are different kinds of listening skills that are said to be able to be “used” by language learners during the l.a. (language acquisition) process:  using different processing when listening (top-down, etc.) listening for specific information, etc. Some of these might have some value in helping you adjust to the language, but sometimes I think it misses the main point of it all…Which is…

To get better at listening, you have to listen more. A lot more. And through the thousands of hours that are spent listening, your listening comprehension will slowly move towards the native-level side of the listening ability spectrum. That’s how it works. Currently I’ve been listening to the same CD of Japanese sentences for nearly the past two years. The CD is about an hour long, and it’s starting to sound more and more natural, more like I’m listening to a CD in my own native language.  My language understanding is heading towards the more subconscious level, instead of consciously  trying to understand. It’s like listening to a music CD that is fuzzy and difficult to make out in the beginning, but with the song gradually becoming clearer until your listening through beats by Dr. Dre.

That’s what developing listening skills are like, and I think that a lot of the difficulty that comes from trying to compartmentalize and use different aspects of listening skills, or as they say in Japan “考えすぎる” (over think) the whole thing, just listen instead. Listen and grow in your understanding, and if you keep progressing, in the end you’ll be able to understand without even trying.

Absorb language 言語を吸収する

The Genius of SRS


SRS stands for “Spaced Repetition Software”. It’s a flashcard learning method that is based on the idea that information can be deeply learned if it is continually encountered and spaced out over a long period of time, as compared to daily intensive studying. Unfamiliar information would be spaced very frequently, maybe a few days, while more familiar information would be more spaced in intervals of weeks, months, or even a year.

For example, If you were exposed to the phrase,

“確かに6階と2階でエレベーターが止まったと思ったけど...” (Hmm, I thought the elevator stopped at the 6th and 2nd floors , but…)

for the first time, you’ll most likely see it the following day. But, if the item is something that is more familiar, like the word “たく” (table), it might not be seen again for 8 months. That’s the beauty of the system, managing what you do know and what your still learning until it all resides pretty much indefinitely inside that memory of yours.

Because of this, SRS programs make it possible to be exposed to thousands of words, sentences, articles, etc., over a period of time. It’s perfect for language learning. Like it was said before, a person has to be exposed to a language until it becomes  subconscious, until it can be felt, and to do that one needs a massive amount of exposure over a long period of time. Enter SRS.

There are a variety of SRS programs out there for both personal computers and smart phones. Some are free and some aren’t. I’ve listed a few of the notable ones below.

Absorb language 言語を吸収する

Balance of theory and practical…実用的のと理論とのバランス

I think it was in graduate school when the professor told us hopeful future second language teachers to always balance the practical side of language pedagogy (what works) with the theoretical side.

I love theory…I always have. It’s unashamedly fun to find the “rules behind it all” and discover the underlying reasons for why something works the way it does. In principle theory should always line up with the practical; in other words, what linguists and researchers drum up in universities as correct “language theory” should, for the average person like you and I, lead to successfully learning a language. Things like Krashen’s i + 1 or Chomsky’s Universal Grammar should help the average person understand the path that needs to be taken so that time isn’t wasted using a meaningless language learning method that will never lead to the comprehension needed to actually live comfortably in a language (like memorizing verb conjugations).

I took three years of Spanish in high school, knew a plentiful amount of vocab, passed all sorts of exams, and could (in English of course) articulate the meaning of more difficult grammatical phrases in Espanola, but the first time my Dad asked me to talk some Hispanics that he was doing business with in Spanish, I froze up and couldn’t do it. It was painstakingly hard to consciously remember the rules of the language and enter into a conversation. I also couldn’t understand what they were saying when they talked ( = no comprehension).

Language isn’t meant to be studied until your knowledge of the language grows detailed enough, it’s meant to be absorbed until it can be felt. Absorb language 「言語を吸収する」.

Learning through constant exposure 常に言語を聞くとペラペラになれる

Here’s an article by Krashan in which he describes how an immigrant in the U.S. learned both Hebrew and English in his time spent living there.

The interesting point in this article is that this immigrant learned Hebrew informally through exposure while working on the job, and that he was about to build his proficiency in the language up to a point where he was mistaken for being a ‘close to native’ or native speaker of the language.

The primary factor for this guy reaching an astounding level of language proficiency was his constant exposure to Hebrew. A massive amount of input. This runs contradictory to what many educational institutions believe about language learning. Traditional views toward learning a language is that language skill comes through “studying” a language and also through lots of oral practice.

Krashan and this story would suggest that the opposite is true: language is absorbed by coming into constant contact with a language for a long period of time. Exposure.

Krashan:article  クラシン:記事

Absorb language 言語を吸収する

What this blog is about…このブログについて。。。

Gengo is a blog written for the purpose to get people to think differently about language, immersion, crossing cultures, and about how language acquisition (language learning) works.

On this blog, different scholastic articles, discussions, quotes, and pop culture items will be posted, with all of it revolving around the concept of coming into contact with other languages.

Gengo「言語」is the Japanese word for “language”.