Teacher Teacher #2: How Can I be Good at Languages?

November 5, 2015
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Hello world, and welcome to my column on Englishjer.com! Previously, we discovered that having a “sense” of language is needed to be good at English. In this week’s entry, we’ll look more into what exactly this “sense” is. Is it some sixth sense, or is it something beyond that? How exactly do we obtain an excellent command of language aside from doing traditional grammar exercises? There has to be some other way, right?

The key to uncovering the secret of this “sense” is by understanding how we first learned language. How did we even learn language during our infancy, when we never attended any classes at the age? And it’s amazing how we can be so good at the first language or dialect we learn, without doing any exercises at all! For example, if a child was born to a family of Kedahans, would the child ever be given a textbook saying that “ayaq” is water? No. And yet every Kedahan child would say the word “ayaq”.

The answer lies within us. We’re born with something special. 

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Way back in the 1950s, a young linguist by the name of Noam Chomsky (by the way, he is still alive, still writing books and still giving talks!) found that language is innate – it is a part of us. We were born with language even before we could attend any classes or do any exercises!

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What’s fascinating is that our brain has this ability to mentally sort out and organize the words we are exposed to during our infancy. So basically, when we were kids, we were unconsciously eavesdropping for words to absorb into our brains! The brain goes one step further and begins to mentally categorize these words, figuring out how each word should be used, what words can go together, and so much more.

Once there are enough words absorbed, the child can then begin to speak. This is the basis of what is now known as Universal Grammar. It has nothing to do with the grammar we learn in school, by the way! The word “grammar” in Universal Grammar here simply means system of language, nothing more. All that matters is that we’re exposed to language usage, and our brain will work its magic.

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However, over time, the brain loses this ability to easily absorb and process words. Chomsky’s pal, Eric Lenneberg, found that there’s a time limit to learning language. Apparently, that time limit is puberty. Puberty has never hit anyone so hard, and apparently it hit us so hard that language learning is affected!

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Does this mean that we’re doomed after we hit puberty? Does that mean there’s no hope to learning language, and the English language in particular?

Not entirely. Just because we lose the natural ability to acquire language doesn’t mean we aren’t able to acquire new languages. The only thing is that the way is entirely different. There are many ways, but one of the ways to acquire language after puberty is through passion.

Wait, this is beginning to sound like a love story…

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In all seriousness, love literally does help in acquiring language! There have been many instances in which people have been able to effortlessly acquire the language of their loved ones because of passion. There’s a reason why the most hardcore anime fans can easily pick up Japanese words. There’s a reason why some K-Drama fans can pick up the Korean language without really needing to attend classes. Love really does conquer everything, after all. At the risk of sounding cheesy, if it’s true love, language easily gets acquired.

In case that sounds farfetched, here’s a video of Tim Doner, a young guy who is so passionate about learning languages, that he speaks so many languages! Passion really does push you go that extra mile.

Hopefully these facts inspire you to discover more about the English language! In the next column, we’ll be covering something all of us have been pretty tense about when learning English: tenses!

Until next time!

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Mr. Nazriq Ahmad is a lecturer who enjoys being mistaken as a student because he believes learning is a lifetime process .He secretly dreams of becoming a rock star and can always be found with a guitar when not lecturing. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.