LINGUIST List 12.2378

Tue Sep 25 2001

Sum: Language Acquisition Outside Formal Education

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. tomasz wisniewski, Sum: language acquisition outside school in traditional societies

Message 1: Sum: language acquisition outside school in traditional societies

Date: Tue, 25 Sep 2001 02:04:13 -0700 (PDT)
From: tomasz wisniewski <>
Subject: Sum: language acquisition outside school in traditional societies

Some time ago (12.2039, 13 Aug 2001) I posted a query
about language acquisition outside school in
traditional societies. I wanted to know something
about the method, specifically whether there are real
lessons i.e. time set apart for study with artificial
situations created for the student, whether the
teacher follows any system (e.g. by concentrating on
one area of life), whether the teacher corrects
mistakes, etc. 

>From the responses I received it became clear that
there is no single answer, because people may learn a
foreign language which is normally used within their
community, or a language of a separate but neigboring
community, and then they are not exposed to the
language as often, and when they learn it they don't
use it as much. In the former case, people often grow
up multi-lingual, and if not, they acquire other
languages without being taught; in the latter case
there is teaching involved. 

The method does not involve grammar theory at all.
Teaching is usually by sentences, with very few basic
words taught separately. The sentences are not
analyzed, or even divided into words. The teaching
follows rather topics than structures. Only serious
mistakes are corrected. 

Most of what I have been able to learn I owe to Mr.
George Grace, who referred to similar methods in his
on-line paper, and supplied me with quotes, and Mr.
Russell Schuh, who sent me some of his own
observations. I am very grateful for their help.

Below I quote their letters (with some editing), if
there are any mistakes I made them while copying. 

George Grace wrote: 

I think the best way to answer your questions is with
quotations from the works I referred to. I don't know
where else in the world similar methods may be
employed. I'm inclined to expect them to be common,
but would also expect Western scholars with their
dedication to the grammar-lexicon model to overlook
(or misinterpret) them. I think the following
quotations from Laycock's and Thurston's works answer
your questions about as well as I know how. 


91. "But a more interesting question is that of the
acquisition of a foreign language on the part of an
adult, especially in circumstances other than
migration to a new language community. I know of no
references to this in the literature, so an
observation of my own may be useful. In 1971 two Papua
New Guineans and I arrived in the evening in an
Abau-speaking village of the upper Sepik. ... My two
companions decided to learn Abau while sitting around
the fire in the evening, from an elderly villager who
came to talk tous. Teaching proceeded by means of
whole sentences and occasional individual lexical
items, either volunteered by the Abau speaker or
requested by [one of the others]"

{Laycock offers from memory an approximation of the
conversation. It begins with requests for betel and
tobacco. He reports that only gross errors were

91. "No attempt was made to explain any of the
morphology (especially the pronoun cross-referencing
and tense/aspect system in verbs, which is complex but
different in all three languages involved), or to
separate out individual words from the sentences,
except in the case of important nouns (sago, tobacco,
areca nut, betel pepper, fire, water), which were
often taught individually.

"92. "All the sentences taught related to friendly,
but nonintimate, socializing: requests for food and
relaxants (tobacco, areca), greetings, and polite
interest ("What village are you from?").

"92. "But it seems likely that this method of teaching
by whole sentences of potential use--the phrase-book
method--is the normal one in Papua New Guinea; my own
informants commonly adopted this method during


68. "The people of NWNB are experienced language
teachers with their own ideas about language
instruction. That their language teaching is
rule-governed became apparent to us only after we had
begun collecting data in all the languages. The
methods Goulden and I had initially devised for the
elicitation of data turned out to be partly at odds
with the established procedures used by our informants
to present their languages to outsiders. In subsequent
encounters with new informants, the same patterns
emerged over and over again."

68. "Language teaching proceeds according to a set of
formulae. The first individual words offered by
informants always include: 'betel, betel pepper, lime
powder, fire' and 'tobacco'. Typically, as each of
these words is given, it is included in a few common
sentences, all of which are requests.... The student
is then required to drill the complete sentence until
it is correct and fluent. Later, the student can
expect to be tested in public by virtually anyone. If
s/he fails, people get embarrassed, because this
implies that the instructors have been lax in their

{The first sentences are requests for betel, tobacco,

69. "...that these sentences are offered first
indicates what is perceived as the primary function of
language in the area--it is most important for
initiating and maintaining human relationships. One
of the first things people do after greeting is share
betel or tobacco. Requesting betel and/or tobacco is a
sign of trust, ..."

70. "The next step in learning a language in NWNB
involves requesting food, usually starting with taro,"

70. "The subsequent stages in language instruction are
less neatly ordered, but pertain to aspects of daily

72-3. "The New Britain concept of language instruction
is highly systematicin that the language taught
follows the progression of social use parallel to the
socialisation of the student into the linguistic
group. The process begins with the formulae
appropriate to the interactional needs of first
greeting, leading eventually to the subtle
insinuations needed to tease afriend. At all stages,
the language taught is governed by its use in actual
social situations."

Russell Schuh wrote:

I can address your question only from what I have
observed in Africa. Most Africans are at least
bilingual, and many are multi-lingual. Until the last
3 or 4 decades, most had no formal schooling, and many
still do not. People become multi-lingual in Africa
for practical reasons--trade, intermarriage,
socio-political reasons (e.g. leaders must be able to
communicate with their people, who often speak a
variety of languages), etc. I have never seen any
evidence that people approach learning languages in a
systematic way, setting aside special times, creating
language exercises, and the like. People who are
exposed to several languages as children acquire their
non-native (or maybe better, non-home) languages like
children acquire any language--they are mentally
equipped to do it. This is probably the most common
situation, i.e. children will have playmates of a
variety of backgrounds and they just talk to each
other in the most convenient language(s). People who
acquire other languages once they become teenagers and
adults seem to do it by being exposed to the language
in sort of constrained circumstances, for example, in
a work environment or a market, where they hear and
use the same phrases over and over. Once they pick up
the ability to hear and understand conversations on
limited topics, then they can fairly easily expand
their range of vocabulary and useful expressions. In
terms of what they are doing as they acquire--learning
words, learning sentences, learning grammar--I'd say
they probably learn sort of globally. What I am sure
of is that they do not earn list of words divorced
from their use in context and they do not explicitly
learn grammar rules. Unlike those of us who have
learned foreign languages in schools and can recite
grammatical rules, whereas we may not be able to do
this for our native languages, multi-lingual Africans
would have no more idea about the grammar of their
2nd, 3rd, 4th language than they would about their
native language.

Mr. Schuh also commented on a method often associated
with unwritten languages, which has been (probably
successfully) used by missionaries and

I'm sure that "pointing and naming" is NOT a method of
language learning in societies such as this. Surely
people would do this if they needed to know the name
of something, but it would probably almost always be
for the practical reason of needing its name so that
they could say something about it, not just to build a
larger repertoire of vocabulary or to practice without
some broader purpose. 

Tomasz Wisniewski
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