Multilingualism for everyone, not just a select few

(Oupa Nkosi)

(Oupa Nkosi)


Think back to when you first started learning a foreign language.

I was one of those considered to be “good at languages”. Like me, though, I imagine you can remember friends who froze at the thought of speaking a second language in class.

The psychologist Albert Bandura called this “social persuasion”; I call it fear of being shown up in front of your mates. Teachers often define this in terms of “having a gift” — or not.

But there is another argument: that language learning has nothing to do with aptitude and more to do with factors such as learning environment and exposure to language.

In the 1960s Noam Chomsky introduced the controversial “language acquisition device”. He suggested that children have an inbuilt universal grammar. In short, learning a first language is easy because you are programmed from birth to do it.

But this concept is a bone of contention among many researchers.

The linguist Yukio Otsu made the valid point that the “language acquisition device” did not seem adaptable to different dialects and accents.

In other words “the device” would help you to learn a standard form of English but not something like Geordie or Bristolian ways of speaking from other parts of Britain.

Other research has questioned why some people learn languages slower than others. If Chomsky’s device existed, then it should, theoretically, automatically activate at the same rate for every learner.

But a recent study at Florida Atlantic University seems to imply that Chomsky’s device may indeed exist — albeit in a different way.

The researchers looked at the learning of vocabulary and grammar among students who spoke English and Spanish as first languages.

The study was carried out with children in schools in the United States, where both English and Spanish are widely spoken. The researchers found that, as the childrens’ English got better, their Spanish got steadily worse.

What this means is the students do not just have one “grammar” — or one universal set of rules that covers every language they learn.

If the children were using the same “rules” or “resources” for learning both languages, the decline in Spanish wouldn’t have happened. Instead, they were able to create new grammars.

The team that carried out the study suggests that this barrier might be more based on language exposure and not linked to the brain at all.

Put that way, the suggestion that we already have the resources to learn as many languages as we like is possibly a game-changer.

The quality of “input” or the language exposure students receive is a big factor in the learning of new languages. But how input is delivered could also be just as important. This can be seen in the changing way students learn languages, inside and outside the classroom.

Take away the fear factor in learning a language, and the ­possibilities are endless. It could even mean that being multilingual becomes the norm rather than the exception.

Christopher McGuirk is a lecturer in English as a foreign language at the University of Lancashire in the United Kingdom. This is an edited version of an article from The Conversation. Read the full article at

The Conversation

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