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Feeling what’s "right"

  Tags: Grammar
 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
27 messages over 4 pages: 1 2 3 4  Next >>
TzilTzal
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 Message 1 of 27
04 October 2010 at 8:10am | IP Logged 
Dear Prof. Arguelles,

One thing that I've always found extremely interesting in language learning is the ability of the learner (or the brain itself actually) to simply infer rules and learn constructs that don't exist in the speaker's native language. I'm not talking about learning a grammatical rule consciously but rather inately understanding a construct/rule so you just "know" or "feel" that it's correct. One such example would be a native speaker of Russian (or some other Slavic language) - a language which doesn't have the concept of the definite article - being able to use "the" correctly, without having learned the actual rules for how to use it, but simply by knowing they're using it correctly. Another example would be an Arabic native speaker "feeling" that he/she is using the correct tense in English even though Arabic has only 3 (past, present & future).

It seems like this ability wears off as one gets older. I wanted to ask you if you find you have this ability in the languages you've learned? Do you find you have to rely more on memorizing rules to know you're speaking correctly? Even when it comes to languages you know very well, do you find you're sometimes not 100% sure how to say what you want or what construct to use?
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Budz
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 Message 2 of 27
04 October 2010 at 8:23am | IP Logged 
The reality is that Russians have great trouble using the indefinite and definite article correctly.
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TzilTzal
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 Message 3 of 27
04 October 2010 at 9:38am | IP Logged 
That would usually happen when they have to follow rules consciously or just haven't properly mastered them. However, some have an innate feeling of how to use it correctly which is the case I'm referring to.
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Budz
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 Message 4 of 27
04 October 2010 at 12:39pm | IP Logged 
Very unscientific. Have you asked the ones that use it correctly how they know? Perhaps they've just had a better teacher, or read a better explanation in a book?

There are definitely rules as to when to use 'the' in English.

And in any case you've contradicted yourself. The ones that use 'the' incorrectly haven't mastered the rules yet. Yet, you seem to think that the ones that use 'the' correctly just have an innate feeling. Couldn't it just be that they've mastered the rule?

Any Russian that's learnt English at school is going to have learnt the rules... they'll have been corrected at school. Of course some will internalise the rules quicker and better than others. But no need to call it innate.
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TzilTzal
Triglot
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Australia
Joined 3670 days ago

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Speaks: Modern Hebrew*, English, Arabic (classical)

 
 Message 5 of 27
04 October 2010 at 2:07pm | IP Logged 
Who says you have scientific about it? Language isn't math. As a matter of fact some of the things I wrote and asked about correspond to some of Chomsky's claims even though these things don't have a "scientific" proof. Don't forget that ultimately, no matter how good a teacher or a textbook you have, neither can ever encompass every possible example or sentence... yet some people seem to be able to grasp when to use these construct correctly at all times.

I used the Russian native speaker just as an example. If they use the definite article correctly there are 2 possibilities, I suppose; one is what you said: they were able to internalize the rules properly so now they're using it correctly. Another is, that they unconsciously inferred them - similarly to a native speaker, except something like this doesn't exist in their native language!

School (or any other language learning medium for that matter) is actually an interesting thing in this context. I can tell you that the rules I learned at school for how to use tenses in English don't always seem to correspond to the way they're actually used and even when they do, one would still have to practice a great deal to fully understand what was meant in the first place. I recall reading in textbooks, for example, that one of the uses of "present perfect" in English is to describe an action that took place in the past but is relevant to the present. Don't you think that's somewhat vague? I remember an endless number of sentences where this description applies, yet present perfect wasn't used. I also remember when they taught conditionals in English in class: I already knew them! Not because I'd memorized or learned the rules for them but because I'd heard them, internalized and simply "knew" when and how they were used even though English isn't my native language.

I think that in language there are things that are hard to grasp through rules and even when you understand the rules and try to apply them, using them "by the book" might sound strange to a native speaker and you still might not use them correctly. That's where the "innate" feeling of how to use them comes into play. That's essentially what I'm asking about.

Edited by TzilTzal on 04 October 2010 at 2:13pm

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Bao
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 Message 6 of 27
04 October 2010 at 2:55pm | IP Logged 
The German word for it is Sprachgefühl. And to have a good Sprachgefühl includes the ability internalize learnt rules quickly as well as to extrapolate rules from a given body of examples and learn to use them correctly. It also includes the skill of changing former assumptions once they are proven wrong.


Budz, if German schools are anything to go by it means that students only learn a set of simplified rules with the hope that they'll figure out how things really work on their own.
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BartoG
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 Message 7 of 27
05 October 2010 at 7:38am | IP Logged 
I think there's really something to be said for this "feel" for a language. It's something that comes with complete internalization of the rule: It's not about knowing the rule explicitly; it's about having seen the rule in action enough that you feel how it works in practice. It's like hitting a particular shot in tennis - you need to transition from knowing what to do to making it second nature.

There's definitely something to be said about having a feel for a language. But the teacher that gives it to you is experience. The more you use a language with native speakers, the more likely you are to develop a feel for it. Knowing the rules explicitly will help, because you'll know what to watch for - and you'll at least subconsciously make a mental note of it when you hear things that don't fit the rules! - but it's hearing and saying things enough that the pattern imprints itself beyond your consciously parsing it that makes the difference.
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AlexL
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 Message 8 of 27
06 November 2010 at 2:45pm | IP Logged 
In Chinese it's called 语感 and there's certainly something to it. Anyone who becomes good at a language will
eventually internalize the rules to the point that sentences just sound right or wrong, and I'm not convinced that
this ability diminishes with age. (Well, at least, I am not convinced that it diminishes with age past puberty.)

I remember reading an article once about an intensive language school somewhere in Asia or Eastern Europe... I
forget where it was exactly. In the language they taught, there is a certain verb tense that has no equivalence in
English and is quite difficult for native English speakers to master. When teaching the tense, the institute's
instructors would say that it was similar to an English tense -- the past perfect, I think -- but only used in cases
X, Y, and Z. This was not really correct; the tense was neither analogous to the past perfect nor was it only
useable in those cases. But three years later, when the students graduated, they had all learned to use the tense
correctly. If you asked them how they knew when to use the tense, they would still repeat the rules that they
learned back in their first year. But it was clear they weren't relying on those rules. Learning about the tense had
made them aware of its existence and they paid attention when they heard it in conversation. Because they
learned about the tense, they were also willing to try to use it in their own conversations. Over the years, they
eventually gained a feel for how the tense was used and began using it like a native.

I have seen a similar process in the learning of the Spanish subjunctive. Teachers give all sorts of weird rules to
students about how to use the mood ("It is used to express desire, uncertainty, wishes, etc."...) which make the
students feel confident enough to begin using the subjunctive and paying attention to its usage. But by the time
they are communicative in Spanish, they are relying on what "feels right"; they are certainly not thinking "is this a
desire, uncertain situation, etc.?".

Developing this feel for the language is an important and inevitable part of learning any new language.


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