Learning and Language Acquisition

...The flexibility of the human mind - its ability to flip frames, shift gestalts, or reconstrue events - is a wondrous talent. But it makes it difficult to predict how a person will think and talk about a given situation...

Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought

The information that is processed through our individual equipment and experiences does not come out exactly the same. This is one of the reasons that the job of being a parent is so difficult. In any relationship, the two parties involved may see things in dramatically different ways, may focus on different central themes, may forget and remember different events or conversations. The time frame, the social context into which a person is born also exert influence on the development of perception.

Why are some teachers more effective than others? Do they have an increased ability to 'translate' information such that the greatest number of students can understand? Do they have an ability to motivate students to learn, to feel positive about possibilities, or to feel part of something important? Or is it about the students' innate capacities and motivation to learn?

If linguistic competence and communicative competence are defined as the ability to adapt what you say to a partner's ability to understand, perhaps the best teachers are those who can best adapt what they have to say to the students' ability to understand.

...The human mind comes equipped with an ability to penetrate the cladding of sensory appearance and discern the abstract construction underneath - not always on demand, and not infallibly, but often enough to shape the human condition. Our powers of analogy allow us to apply ancient neural structures to newfound subject matter, to discover hidden laws and systems in nature, and not least, to amplify the expressive power of language itself...

Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought

Reading, writing and thinking produce actual physical changes in the construction of our brains, and affect how we view and live our lives. We in turn can affect the brains and lives of others in sharing what we have learned.

Developmental course of language:

1. phonology - sounds
2. semantics - meanings
3. syntax - grammar
4. pragmatics - practical application regarding circumstances

In school, my best subjects were math, english and french. I did well in all subjects, but found physical education uncomfortable because of ichthyosis, and was never totally relaxed in art or music classes. By Grade 11, I began to have trouble in math and science courses, but even when things were at their worst, no one could beat my grades in French or Spanish.

critical period: some skill may never be acquired if the child is not exposed at/by a particular age
sensitive period: skills more commonly acquired during a paricular period/time/age range

H Rudolph Schaffer, Introducing Child Psychology

Languages are more easily acquired by the young, and over time, I did not develop my 'gift' in this area. As a result, I lost it.

I sometimes wonder if all the events that occurred during 1982 somehow had an effect on my ability to eventually join the workforce. At a critical time, when I should have been preparing for my future, I somehow did not develop the necessary skills and contacts, and perhaps even developed an unconscious phobia related to working.

...Spoken language is acquired quite naturally in the flow of social interaction... Learning to write therefore makes far greater demands on children than learning to talk...

H Rudolph Schaffer, Introducing Child Psychology

My first spoken language was Polish, which I might have picked up from the great-grandmother who babysat me while my parents worked. When I started school, I have a memory of being uncertain whether I knew as much English as the other children, but I picked it up quickly, and at present have not much rembrance at all of Polish. Both Steven Pinker and Judith Harris Rich have written about the importance of peers when it comes to language acquisition - and certainly speaking is an activity which is central to human life.

However, written language has always come much more naturally to me than speaking, or so it seems according to memory. I have a lot more trouble speaking than writing, and feel more confident that I can communicate effectively in writing than when speaking. It could be, though, that the main difference is one of time. In writing, there is time to organize the ideas and present them in a coherent fashion. There is afterward concrete evidence of the coherence (or the lack of coherence) of ideas. When it comes to speech, coherence may be not be evident if voice, inflection, mannerisms, symptoms of anxiety or lack of confidence or authority distract from the message.

One of my problems in school may have been the result of this very issue. If my major talent was for languages, and yet I had trouble speaking any language, including English, success in the area of languages was likely to be limited.

When I was in Grade 5, my family moved to Northern Ontario, where students start learning French very early - Grade 1 or so. I had never studied French, yet in my first year was the top student in my class. In all the places I lived after that, I always had the highest grade in French. I also took Spanish and Latin with similar results. Yet I have never won a language award at any school I attended, and part of this related to my inability to speak fluently. I had to speak occasionally in class, but I would prepare for this beforehand, by memorizing a variety of responses for a variety of possible scenarios.

It is now 26 years since I studied French. I did not develop my ability, and cannot say that I can read or write French. What I remember is really very minimal. If I were in a situation in which I had to speak it every day for a while, a lot more vocabulary and grammar structure would be likely to come back to me, but I am unlikely to be in such a situation. While travelling, I did speak French, better in some circumstances that in others, but definitely not fluently.

I think it's possible that when it comes to speaking English, I feel as awkward as many people do who try to speak an unfamiliar language. I don't know to what extent it's about not having the usual job and hobbies and relationships to speak about, along with conventional values, and to what extent it's about a flaw or disability, or even inhibition related to impatience in teaching styles (possibly encountered for example in my father - my sister was possibly similarly inhibited/influenced by his style when it came to reading).

...Reading and writing require focusing the mental attention upon a text by means of the visual sense. As an individual reads and writes he gradually learns to close or inhibit the impact of his senses, to inhibit or control the responses of his body, so as to train energy and thought upon the written words. He resists the environment outside him by distinguishing and controlling the one inside him. This constitutes at first a laborious and painful effort for the individual...

Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet

Structured learning requires us to rely less on our senses and instincts. We learn to interpret the world around us and the data coming in differently, and we rate the relevance and sort data differently as a result.

...While agreeing that children's solo performance is of interest, argued that a child's optimum level is achieved when working jointly with a more knowledgeable person, and that more advanced ways of thinking are then revealed in comparison with solo conditions, and that children's ability to benefit from help can tell us more about their eventual capacities than their efforts at unsupported problem-solving...

H Rudolph Schaffer, (on Vygotsky) Introducing Child Psychology

I didn't receive help with homework from my parents, I refused to take part in an enrichment program which was offered to me, and I found it difficult to ask either other students or teachers for elaboration when I didn't understand something. This was perhaps a personality flaw, or it was perhaps a result of familial interaction and domestic turmoil. I had to come at things from a lot of different angles, and even be creative when it came to trying to address some of the weak points in my understanding and intelligence. I was extremely self-conscious, and often if I couldn't work something out for myself, it had to be dropped.

My most important teachers might have been books, but I think there comes a time when in order to go further, we need to have actual real life situations and conversations in which to test and challenge our knowledge. Once I had discovered the internet, even at that relatively late stage in my life, I was actively seeking out those who would challenge me to achieve a more optimal level of communication. My efforts were perhaps awkward, but the discussions I have had still strike me as being of immense value.

...Computers, like the human cognitive system, are also information processing devices. They too accept certain kinds of input, and just as the human mind transforms input into symbolic form to represent external stimuli, so computers need to convert their input into symbols in order then to register and store the data. And just as human beings then make use of stored symbols as the content of thought, so computers can perform a range of operations upon whatever material is to be found in their storage system...

H Rudolph Schaffer, Introducing Child Psychology

When it comes to human beings, they don't usually remember for the sake of remembering:

...they remember in the service of other goals inherent in the activities they pursue...

H Rudolph Schaffer, Introducing Child Psychology

Australian Aboriginal children have greater visual spatial memory than whites - the old memory tests were culturally biased (when life is lived in vast open spaces, it makes sense that memory would develop differently.)

Parents also influence memory styles - elaborative or non-elaborative regarding events.















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