Always Learning!

The world through the prism of my mind

Learning language like children do – as if!

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on November 13, 2006

I keep hearing the claims that one should try learning a foreign language like children do. Roseta Stone is a famous example of software that convinces people that they can do just that.

I have a couple of problems with that approach.

First one is that even if the immersion method was sufficient, it would have to be as immersive as what a child gets – 24 hours a day minus sleep. One hour a day is not sufficient in my opinion. And if you are studying foreign language in an immersive environment, Roseta Stone is just a way to concentrate your mind more than anything. And with its price tag, a very expensive way to concentrate the mind.

The other reason is that when people say immersive environment, they usually mean no grammar rules. Just listening and talking, reading and writing. That’s what children do, right?

Wrong! At least it is wrong for the Russian language. School in USSR used to have a class called Russian Language which run for several school years. It was not about the Russian literature, that was a second, separate class. Russian Language class was about learning the orthography and grammar of our own mother tongue and – trust me! – it was hard.

Declensions were hell. Russian language has six of them and we had to have mnemonics to just remember their order (I still remember «Иван Родил Девчонку, Велел Тащить Пелёнку») The rules for when to write soft and hard sign letters were a story of their own. And dictations! That is when you think that the teacher’s whole purpose in life is to make you want to cry. When every misspelling and a missing coma would drop your grade! And then (the next year) you get rephrasing exercises where you listen to a story three times and have to write it out in your own words afterwards. And you are marked for style as well as orthography.

And, I am sorry to say, we made fun of Georgians and Armenians, because – trying to learn their own complex languages – they never sounded quite right speaking Russian, even though they were also part of USSR. We learned how to say things correctly, because we had anecdotes being told and retold on exactly how they got it wrong.

I always admire people who decide to learn Russian and persevere with its alphabet, its grammar and its pronunciation. But those who think that ‘learning like children’ approach means learning through absorption and with no grammar study, I don’t have much time for. It did not work for us, when we were children. I don’t see how it will work for you, however much you will pay for the software with the fancy claims on its cover.

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