27 December 2012

Ability vs ability

The Telegraph was talking nonsense.  The BBC have the real story.

A friend of mine shared a link to an article about a man from England who had a stroke and started speaking Welsh, despite having only spent a short spell in Wales when he was evacuated there during the Second World War.

This is pretty interesting from a neurolinguistic perspective.  I did a tiny bit of AI at uni first time round, and one of the few things that stuck with me long-term was the notion that the brain works by a combination of activations and inhibitions.

Here's the concept in a simplified form (possibly oversimplified, but hey-ho)....

Human brain cells become excited or "activated" when they receive appropriate stimulation.  You can extend this idea of activation to groups or paths of neurones that map to more specific concepts.

Unlike a computer, this structure lets our brains evaluate multiple things literally at the same time.  If we have a complex problem, our brains will be contemplating multiple solutions.  But with so many possible solutions, how does the brain decide on which one to choose?

Evolution's solution was the mechanism of "inhibition" -- certain activations inhibit other responses.  In the case of a complex problem, the strongest solution "inhibits" the others, effectively switching them off.

Alun Morgan, then, had learnt enough Welsh to speak it... in theory.  But he hadn't learnt enough to overcome the inhibitions that English had placed in the way of him speaking it.

The Real Challenge
That, then, is the real challenge for any language learner: not just learning enough to be able to speak it, but learning enough to be able to defeat the native language that's competing with it.

This is where the apparent "magic" of immersion comes in: the brain picks up on the fact that the native language isn't any use.  On the other hand, this is probably why forced immersion so often fails -- because the learner knows that they don't need the target language to communicate with the other people in the classroom.

So do we give up on immersion?

Not "give up", no, but we have to stop seeing it as something magical.  Finding ways to make the language feel genuinely necessary to ourselves or to our students is not easy.  I don't personally believe that we can ever overcome the native language as a source of inhibition through pure force of will.  In fact, I believe it often has the opposite effect, turning the target language into a barrier to communication rather than a means of communication.

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