Getting a new language

Posted by on August 12, 2013

© PhotodiscThe meanings of acquire listed in the Macmillan Dictionary include:
1 to get something, for example by buying it or being given it
2 to get new knowledge or a new skill by learning it
5 to gradually develop or learn something

Which of these definitions best applies to the process of acquiring a second language? Well, clearly not sense 1 – you can certainly get a place on a language course by paying for it or being given it as a present, but that’s only a starting point; you can’t buy the language itself, and merely attending the course won’t be enough to guarantee that you’ll acquire the language. Furthermore, when you acquire something in sense 1, it generally becomes your property immediately, whereas acquiring a language is a lengthy and laborious undertaking.

Sense 2 is much nearer the mark – language acquisition involves learning knowledge (such as knowledge about how to form questions and negatives) and skills (such as listening, making appropriate responses, indicating that you haven’t understood something, and so on). Sense 5 adds another important dimension: your knowledge and skill develop gradually – sometimes so gradually that it can be hard to detect any progress at all. Evidence of acquisition takes the form of what you say, write and understand in your new language, but the process of acquisition is intangible, and people sometimes like to think of it in terms of solid images or metaphors.

One such image is the idea that second language acquisition is like building a house. You start off with your basic materials, and build it brick by brick; some people even say that words are the bricks and grammar is the mortar that holds them together. When the roof is on, the windows fitted and the house furnished, you can move in and start using it. This image is attractive because it captures the idea of starting small and working methodically to construct something large, solid and substantial. It also reflects the fact that, just as no two people build identical houses, everyone has their own version of the language they speak: their own preferred vocabulary and idioms and their characteristic ways of expressing themselves.

On the other hand, the ‘building a house’ image is inadequate for a number of reasons, not least because you can’t wait to take up residence until the house is finished; you probably need to start using the language as soon as you start learning it – this is especially true in the case of English nowadays. And in any case, the notion of ‘finishing’ doesn’t really apply: for one thing, language is constantly changing (this is of course a perennial topic for this blog), which means that there is always something new to learn, and for another thing, there are many people who use English successfully for personal or professional purposes even though their knowledge and skills are rather limited; this is certainly easier to do than living in a house with holes in the walls and roof!

Perhaps a more realistic version of the ‘building a house’ image is that acquiring a language is like living on a permanent building site where all sorts of additions, extensions, alterations, repairs and improvements are constantly in progress, and where you cut corners by bringing in fittings, furniture and even structural elements from your first language; some of these will fit very nicely but others will stick out like a sore thumb.

In my next post, I’ll describe some alternative images of second language acquisition. In the meantime, maybe you’ve got some that you’d like to share?

Comments (1)
  • Interesting that the ‘building’ metaphor doesn’t quite fit language acquisition. There’s a well-established metaphorical link between ‘achieving’ something (typically over a long period – like learning a language) and the idea of building something. We often talk about ‘building up’ a business or ‘laying the foundations’ for future success etc, There is more about this in the ‘Metaphor Box‘ at the dictionary’s entry for achieve: . Looking forward to your next thoughts on this subject!

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 13th August, 2013
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