Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Building a crane to the vocabulary spurt

In the third chapter of Becoming a Word Learner, Linda Smith talks about how children build a crane (her term) to make themselves better word learners.

The notion is that when children learn their first words, they start to notice patterns about those words and create templates for future learning. Her main point is that children seem to fix on shape, rather than some other property, to signal an object's class. For example, chairs—prototypically anyway—have four legs, a seat and a back. This shape cues children in that a CHAIR is a chair. What's interesting is that when researchers cue very young children in on the shape bias by training them, their vocabularies grow faster.

So whatever the exact mechanism may be, children are learning how to learn words by—and this is truly shocking—learning words. Once they get to a certain point, the biases and patterns they've developed seem to take on a life of their own.

How might this relate to learning a second language? I'm not wholly sure, but allow me some speculation. One of the things that foreign language learning materials seem to focus on is inflectional morphology, which makes enough sense. You can't speak the language if you don't know how speakers expect things to be ordered. Latin wants case inflection on nouns. English wants word order. Spanish wants you to be clear about which object you are talking about via definite and indefinite articles. Russian couldn't care. And so on.

But one thing that foreign language materials, so far as I've seen anyway, don't worry too much about is derivational morphology. How do you get from civil to civility? And why can't you go from polite to politity? I'll be reading a paper—and thus blogging about it later—about this subject exactly.  I could be wrong, but I suspect that adult learners are given vocabulary lists that they then create a derivational morphology from. Or at least that's how it felt to me when I was learning Latin all those years ago. Civis became civitas. Aestus became aetstas. Could moralis become mortalitas? And the connection is made, though not without flaws. I think it was then that my grasp on Latin vocabulary started to really firm up from a list of words to memorize to things that behaved in similar way. In other words, I had made a derivational morphology crane for myself.