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The grind is no good

Spotted this in Findings in the August Harpers the other day:

“… and babies learn language not through gradual habituation but in epiphanies.”

This likely makes total sense to any parent who has watched their child make sudden leaps in mastery and ability, both in speech, but also in the physical. It seems to happen so effortlessly, without any of the repetitive grind we associate with the learning process as adults.

The current, long-standing theory suggests that children learn their first words through a series of associations; they associate words they hear with multiple possible referents in their immediate environment. Over time, children can track both the words and elements of the environments they correspond to, eventually narrowing down what common element the word must be referring to.

 “This sounds very plausible until you see what the real world is like,” Gleitman said. “It turns out it’s probably impossible.”

The study, which seems set to rewrite textbooks on language learning for adults and parenting guides, suggests:

…that rich interactions with children — and patience — are more important than abstract picture books and drilling.

What a great insight into why what works when it comes to teaching,and what doesn’t.

The full study, How words can and cannot be learned by observation can be found here, but requires a subscription to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to access it. Science Daily also has a discussion of the piece here, no subscription required.


About three quarters of a million

English Literature major/TV Writer/Business Journalist launching onto a new path: a Masters in Teaching English to speakers of other languages through the University of Southern California.

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