Thursday, March 15, 2012

Magdalena's language acquisition

Human beings are born with the ability to discriminate between all the different phonemes (sounds) of any language on earth. As we get older - during infancy according to some, a bit later according to others - we lose that ability. The brain is an efficient language-learning machine, and it figures that if you aren't meaningfully exposed to a sound on a regular basis, you don't need to waste resources holding on to the ability to distinguish it from other similar sounds, much less produce it. So you end up with awkward Americans completely unable to trill their Rs, or Japanese people saying "supplies" instead of "surprise," and not knowing the difference.

Arabic is full of those nervous-sweat-inducing phonemes (for the native English speaker). There are two different H sounds, and two different T sounds, two different S sounds, and some sounds that are so weird I can't even compare them to anything that exists in English. With a lot of attention, practice, and imitation, some adult learners of Arabic as a foreign language learn to approximate these sounds well enough, perhaps even in a manner that approaches native-like production. But they'll always sound a little off, you know? Think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Henry Kissinger, or Antonio Banderas, or Anna Kournikova - they're obviously quite proficient in English but they produce some of the sounds in English in a way that is clearly not native.

But if you catch kids early enough, it's a different story. Magdalena is suddenly busting out some of those difficult Arabic sounds like a born native. To this linguist's ears, it's stunning. Our poor kids are always having their language analyzed (we have Google Docs for each of them to document the linguistically quirky things they say), so I couldn't help but prompt Magdalena to produce the letter ع.





She says it at 0:12-0:13, and again at 0:32-0:33. It sounds like a deep, strangled 'ah.' And I can't pronounce it anything like she does. Lucky girl, being taught Arabic at age 3. I have to admit, I'm jealous.


(The rest of the video is a bunch of Arabic songs, with Jeremy and Miriam pitching in to help, but they're a bit jumbled. She can't produce spontaneous language as well as she sings these memorized songs, but she sure enjoys singing them! Which reminds me - an Egyptian friend of mine in the MA program observed Magdalena's class as part of a project for Bilingual Education last semester. During Arabic class, my friend actually moved to the front of the room to see Magdalena better, because she could not believe her ears that this little blonde girl was busting out Arabic the way she was. She said it was one of the cutest things she's ever seen. What can I say? Magdalena is a very enthusiastic learner.)

13 comments:

Liz Johnson said...

That's awesome. I am so jealous of her Arabic.

This brings up a discussion I've been having with my SIL - I'd love to hear your thoughts on dual immersion programs (my SIL is thinking about putting her daughter in a Spanish/English one, where you learn every subject in both languages). Also, what about just taking a language 1-2 times per week in elementary school? Are there any pros/cons to the various approaches, especially when you're living in a predominantly English-speaking country and thus might not have as many opportunities to practice as you'd like?

Sherwood family said...

When Edwin started talking, he said 'car' with a qaaf instead of a c. He's stopped now, but it was pretty funny.

Melody said...

I've heard before that those who are very good at singing are also better at making sounds in other languages. I don't know if it's really true. I've just heard that they have a better ear for it.

Crys said...

SHE IS ADORABLE! Liz, so I'm no linguist but my sister pays 12,000 a year for her kid to be in dual immersion and it is awesome, I am insanely jealous of how well she is doing after just a year. Both my sister and brother speak Spanish, but previous to this year did not use it in their home.

breanne said...

Wow, she sounds incredible. I'm especially jealous of her qaaf, which I can't ever seem to say right. Is it a glottal stop? Is it a soft q? Is it a deep q? Is it a g?

Anyway. Liz, to somewhat answer your question, I am teaching an 8 year old Chinese right now who was in an immersion program in Utah for two years. I am teaching her this year while her family lives in Jerusalem so she can keep up with her class. And I am AMAZED at how well she does. Our lessons are entirely in Chinese and she speaks quite well. Neither of her parents speak any Chinese and she had few opportunities (besides school) to speak it in Utah and no opportunities here in Jerusalem. But she still does pretty well. It is much better if one or both of the parents know some of the language so they can reinforce the learning at home, but I highly recommend dual-immersion. When I have kids I am definitely going to enroll them in one.

Ariana said...

Amazing! Too bad the USA is so anti-language teaching at very early ages in public school.

Merkley Jiating said...

Whoa man. I didn't understand any of it but I have no doubt that it was amazing.

Kathy Haynie said...

Sweet little girl. And so smart!! Thank you for posting the video. She is obviously thriving in her "dual language program." :)

Anonymous said...

I'm so impressed! I wish my pronunciation were that good.

Hannah

Ariana said...

My two year old has asked to watch this video about 20 times today! hahaha He is fascinated!

Andrea said...

Impressive. Elizabeth watched it at least ten times in a row.

Julee said...

At three years old she is already smarter than me. So cute! Can we get together this summer??? Por favor?

Trina said...

That was really cool! I love when she stopped and said, "that's not right." She is so cute! Miss you and your sweet girls!

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