Seeding, weeding, map-reading, heeding

Posted by on August 26, 2013

© CorbisIn my previous post I described the metaphor of ‘building a house‘ as one way of understanding the process of language acquisition, and suggested that it contains more than a grain of truth, but has its limitations. Now I’d like to consider two other metaphors.

Firstly, perhaps learning a language is like tending a garden. You plant seeds (the basic elements of the language) and soon little green shoots (the first tentative phrases and sentences that you can say in the new language) start to grow. As time goes by, they grow taller and develop leaves, flowers and branches (the increasingly subtle and complicated utterances that you can produce in the language).

Meanwhile, the wind blows seeds in from the surrounding countryside (influences from your first language, and from the natural, uncultivated environment which all languages grow out of) and some of these establish themselves and grow in your garden. You think some of them, such as dandelions, look very attractive, but gardening experts tell you they are weeds (mistakes) and you should get rid of them. You do your best, but it isn’t always easy, because weeds can be quite persistent, but you gradually become better at noticing them and nipping them in the bud. Eventually you become quite philosophical about weeds, and realise that they’re an inevitable part of gardening, and most of them don’t actually do any harm.

Secondly, perhaps learning a language is like hiking around unfamiliar countryside. Some aspects of the scenery are comfortingly familiar, while elsewhere the shape of the land and the colour of the rocks and vegetation are alien and perhaps a bit threatening. But the further you go, the more you begin to take them for granted. Sometimes rain sets in and you get discouraged; sometimes thick fog descends and you lose your sense of orientation. Sometimes you realise you’ve gone the wrong way and have to retrace your steps. Sometimes you struggle up a long, steep climb; when you finally reach the summit you’re rewarded, as you look back, with an extensive vista and the satisfaction of having covered so much terrain … but also, as you look ahead, with the prospect of further, even tougher climbs ahead. And as you follow different routes around the countryside you begin to get a sense of the overall geography – the layout of the hills, valleys and rivers – and to appreciate how the underlying geology has shaped the land.

Some people like to refer to maps to help them plan routes and keep track of where they are, but others prefer to be guided by their intuition if there are no signposts to mark the way. (A lot of people can’t read maps, actually!) Some people are solitary walkers, while others prefer to join a group with a knowledgeable guide who leads the way and points out features of flora, fauna, geology and so on. Sometimes some of these group walkers find that the pace is either too fast or too slow for them, or they don’t heed what the guide is telling them because they get distracted by something even more interesting that catches their attention.

As you tramp around the countryside in different directions, at different times of day, in different seasons, in different weathers, on your own and with different companions, you develop an increasingly intimate knowledge of it, but you can always find remote valleys you’ve never explored, and be surprised by unexpected sights and sounds. And as you meet and talk to other walkers you often find that they’ve taken different routes to the same destination as you.

Can you spot the similarities between hiking and learning a language?

And what about you? What are your metaphors for language learning?

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Comments (1)
  • Thank you so much for such a lyrical description of language learning! I’d say that in learning English I’m more of a gardener, but when it comes to Dutch I’m definitely climbing a very tricky mountain. I’m not sure the ‘building the house’ metaphor works for me – languages can be so unpredictable. I’d say it’s more like ‘interior decoration’. (Incidentally, there was a post about the difficulty of English – and other languages – on Prospero last week which makes a very interesting read too).

    Posted by Kati on 26th August, 2013
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