We learn language best from our peers

By | December 20, 2013

During my study of the Japanese language, oftentimes I cannot help but think fundamentally about how humans learn a foreign language, or any language for that matter.

Some years back when I was more actively studying linguistics, I read a very interesting book called “The Language Instinct” by Steven Pinker (see wikipedia page here). As you might expect from the title, the central premise of the book is that our brain is hard-wired to learn languages.

Since it was some time ago and I read through it fairly quickly, I’ve long since forgotten the finer points of this book. But there was two things that really stood out and left a lasting impression on me:

  • Young children will spontaneously generate a grammar if given a language without defined grammar rules, but only if they are below a certain age
  • As children get older, they learn a majority of their native language from their friends (their peers), not their parents

In this post I’d like to focus on the latter of these. At first it was very surprising to me that children would not have a larger linguistic influence from their parents – after all they will likely spent a greater portion of their waking time with their parents, listening to their native language spoken around the house. But when I thought about it some more, a teenager’s instinct to rebel from his or her parents, and be more like their “cool” friends seems like it could cause similar shifting of influence regarding language.

I’m no linguist, but I’ve tried to apply this concept to my own learning of Japanese. I have noticed that I tend to copy the Japanese I hear more people I am close to or respect, especially if they are a similar age. This isn’t exactly the same thing as comparing parental vs peer influence, but it does relate in the sense that peer influence is stronger than non-peer influence.

For example, I can watch Japanese dramas all day long and try to memorize and use the expressions I heard in my conversations, but I’ve found thats very difficult to do. I feel one of the reasons is a lack of trust or respect with the speaker. Do I really know what meaning was meant by this phrase? Could it have been used as sarcasm or is it an uncommon expression with connotations unknown to me? Sometimes I can use these expressions as a joke to someone I am close with, but using them with a stranger makes me uncomfortable.

On the other hand, if I hear someone I respect speaking a certain phrase to me in person, I am more likely to trust and (instinctually?) copy what they say if such an opportunity comes my way.

So how can you use this to benefit your foreign language speaking? First of all, in situations where can you choose your conversation partner (pen pal, for example), look for someone near your age and possibly the same sex. Second, try to nurture longer relationships with a select few, as opposed to a lot of “surface” acquaintances – whether they are net friends or those you meet in person. The more you trust and understand the other person the more likely you are able to pick up useful phrases and learn to apply them in your own speech. You can even try to steer your selection of fiction works (dramas, novels, etc.) to those which have situations close to real life, and have characters you can respect and identify with.

It’s amazing to me how the brain processes language, and I hope to continue to study this as I work to improve my Japanese.

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