For the first time since sixth form I’ve actually been browsing through some papers on linguistics. Taking a trip down memory lane to A-level English language, a lot of the material we covered was based on the Book of Chomsky. Well, “the Books”, actually – he’s output a phenomenal amount of material on language acquisition over the course of his lengthy and prestigious career, and has for decades been seen as the authority on the subject. A lot of his research can be summed up thus: adults fundamentally acquire language in a different way to children – this difference supposedly means that adults find it a lot harder to learn a second language. In fact, either Chomsky or one of his offshoots (hereafter referred to as “Chomskites”) posited that it was impossible to adults to learn a language to complete fluency, and that even trying just got harder with age.
I was (more recently) introduced to one Stephen Krashen. I was surprised to find out that he doesn’t contest children and adults acquiring language in different ways (I do) – but virtually everything else is a different kettle of fish. The biggest and most important thing he’s said is though is that true, native-level bilingualism is possible even for second languages learners, and there are a variety of people that support that statement. Get the plates Chomsky, cuz you just got served!
Krashen’s theories are split up into five hypotheses, the most well-known of which is the Input Hypothesis. This has formed the basis of Antimoon and AJATT. The hypothesis broadly states that humans can only acquire language in one way – from exposure to comprehensible input and understanding. This tallies with how children learn language – one step at a time. Material for children is carefully graded so that whatever they do, it’s not too much of a stretch.
Clearly however, the Input Hypothesis is completely at odds with traditional language learning, wherein one of the first things students are told to do is speak – to say new words and phrases without hearing them first. This is what almost all textbooks tend to do too – they give exercises often for a student to construct their own sentences. This is highly error prone – compounding the problem is that learners who learn in this way tend to internalize their mistakes. This is known as fossilization, and what we end up with is a situation in which virtually every learner of a foreign language is easily distinguishable from native speakers by virtue of their inaccuracies. This is why both Antimoon and AJATT don’t recommend much speaking when learning a language.
I think this is something of a fallacy though – this conclusion is drawn from speakers who learn using non-input based methods. Children never undergo fossilization. They make all kinds of mistakes, all the time, and do so also when talking to each other – so why do we not live in a world when everyone’s all like “me want nana!”? I’m pretty damn well sure that it’s because they have constant exposure to their language – even if they don’t conform right away, they have no choice but to, given the constant corrections thrown their way. What happens if they don’t receive constant corrections? They keep making the mistake. Clearly then, fossilization isn’t limited to just adult learners, but can be countered with sufficient feedback.
Given that children don’t internalize their screwups, and since both AJATT and Antimoon are based on massive native input which mimics the way children learn language, – I think it’s pretty safe to start speaking whenever a learner feels like it. If making mistakes doesn’t harm children in the long run (given sufficient feedback), then it shouldn’t hurt learners.
I say this, because I think it really is important for learners to be speaking sooner. There is a difference between active and passive vocabulary. If you’re familiar with Heisig, you’ll know that he advocates writing Chinese characters for practice, even if the eventual goal is only to read them. This is because active recall (writing) tends to produce stronger memories that passive recall (recognition). This is documented in more papers than there are stars in the sky. Also, if you think about when you were at school – whenever was an assignment just to read? Never, that’s when – it was to read something and write an essay on it. Or, in the case of maths, to do a load of problems on the subject matter. Yes, you make mistakes, but that is part of the learning process, and so long as someone is there to correct you everything runs smoothly.
Khatzumoto has said previously that his speaking was considerably weaker than his listening, in both Japanese and Cantonese, and I’d say that that’s a direct consequence of placing a disproportionate amount of emphasis on input rather than output. Incidentally, Krashen has stated in papers that he doesn’t think language production is harmful at all to learning – quite the opposite – he just cautions against doing so too early. I agree that we only acquire language through constructive input; the niggly point is that we improve our language ability through output.
 Actually, that’s a lie. They won’t be referred to again. I just thought “Chomskites” sounded funny.
 Why a fish? Why a kettle? Why is there more than one?! One of those eternal mysteries of the English language, I guess.
 This actually happened to a friend’s child – they thought it was cute that she was forever referring to herself as “me” (instead of “I”), even when she way 8? 10? years old. Cute perhaps, but not funny for her in the long run.