Beyond Words - Language Blog

Language as Intuitive Process: Second-Language Acquisition and Children

The process of second-language acquisition in children is a brilliantly whimsical foray into how the mind superimposes available rules onto new terrain. Young students do not have to contend with the fears and hang-ups that adult language-learners struggle with, and most will bravely guess at phraseology rather than keep quiet. The lessons I’ve gleaned from teaching ESL have demonstrated just how much intuition dictates to children as they learn a new language.

Even my youngest Russian students know that, while English grammar can be treacherously irregular, vocabulary can be guessed at with surprising accuracy due to the fact that a great number of words share Latin roots. If students do not know how to say something in English, they simply say the Russian word with English pronunciation. This is a rather logical assessment: If you take a Russian word, drawl out the “r”, round out the “o”, and clip sibilant “s’s” into “z’s”, you pretty much have English. Unfortunately, it isn’t always that easy, but the kids do succeed in making whatever words they produce sound English, even if those words don’t actually exist in the language.

Syntax is another arena in which one language vividly shows itself in another. Russian tends to place prepositional phrases before main clauses, and following this template, my students render such sentences as: “To me comes my grandmother” and, because they come from some of the most affluent families of Moscow, “To my happy birthday goes Vladimir Putin.” Eventually, through years of drills and rote memorization, they are weaned off this sort of transposition and grow accustomed to a different set of syntactical rules.

But certain things persist:
Thanks to outdated textbooks, children will say, “I like to dance. That makes me very gay.”
When I tell them to write a rhyming poem, I get: “Budent is a student.”
And, without fail, when they have to label a person’s outfit, on his feet he wears “cocks.”

Occasionally, though, the two languages will coincide with bewildering precision. I once asked a second-grader why she drew price tags in her notebook and why the numbers on them were so outrageously high. “What do you want,” she replied, “It’s Moscow!”


Photography courtesy of the Museum of Hartlepool