I read this news article while ago, January of this year to be exact and I thought it was really interesting. Paul Sulzberger proposes that people can begin to learn a second language by listening to it. This goes against conventional wisdom in teaching a second language. Often, the focus is on meaning and practice. The idea of focusing on meaning and practice makes sense because in learning a second language one can build on what you already know. You can use the ideas and meanings you know in L1 to match with new words (but same meanings) in L2. Similarly, you can use what you know about grammar in L1 to learn L2. Even if the grammar is different (and it is) you at least can think about the fact that there needs to be a way to talk about the past, present, and future. You know that there’s got to be a rule to talk about one thing vs. more than one thing. So, what does just listening do? How can you learn another language without knowing the meaning?I think that an answer (or at least the beginning of an answer) is in work done with babies. Babies don’t use words, grammar, and so on when they are very young. They need to learn the language. What language do they learn? Well, they learn the language they hear. We don’t know exactly how they do this, but babies seem to learn the patterns of speech.
Someone who has been a pioneer in this area is Jenny Saffran. She and her colleagues did an experiment with 8 month old infants. They played combinations of syllables to these babies. The syllable strings followed certain patterns so that certain syllables co-occurred with others, and where other syllables didn’t occur after each other. Babies listened to these for a few minutes. Then, they were “tested” on whether they recognized these syllable strings in comparison to different combinations of the same syllables. Amazingly, the babies were able to tell the difference. They paid more attention when the syllable combinations were new.
So, what does this tell us about the news article about learning to a second language? Well, I wonder if second language learning to an extent works the same way as first language learning. By listening to a second language (and not worrying about the meaning) people might be able to start to extract the patterns of sounds. In listening you can start to gain knowledge of what the language sounds like, what sounds go together and it what pattern. You might notice (or your brain might notice even if you can’t say what it is– it’s probably more implicit at this level) that certain sounds occur at the beginning of a string of sounds and that other sounds occur at the ends.
This doesn’t mean that meaning and practice don’t matter– they do. But, it may be that just getting used to the sounds of a language is a good start to learning a second language.