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Babies and brains

Babies are amazing, as this comic points out. They sit there, eating and sleeping and making a mess of themselves, and without any special instruction or methods (or textbooks, I might add) they somehow just know that language is a thing, they find the patterns in the noises they hear coming out of adult mouths (patterns which the adults are often unaware of) and within a few years, they’re able to perform soaring feats of syntax, morphology, and semantics.

baby grammar

Believe it or not, those weird symbols all mean things, and the things they mean are going on in your brain right now.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to learn more languages that way? The classical school of grammar didn’t think so. They held that the best way to know a language was to memorize, organize, and memorize some more. The chaotic way that babies just take all the input and figure out the tangle must not have sat well with the Romans or the wanna-be Romans of later European history, because they went in almost the exact opposite direction of language learning.


I don’t know how to ask that question in Latin.

Sometime in the 1960s or 70s, though, the field of language teaching, fueled by the free spirit of the times, distanced itself from rote memorization and began developing other methods. Many of them were a return in the direction of the baby method, but since that way doesn’t need books (or teachers), the teachers had themselves figuring more prominently in the new methods, while still treating their students like babies. Methods like Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and the Inductive Method put learners in contact with the language (and may even ask them to use it) before telling them how it works.

As I see it, the main problem with this approach is that you and I are no longer babies. The pros outweigh the cons, I believe: sure, you can’t brilliantly learn an entire language with native proficiency in just a few years, but you also already have a language, and you can dress and feed yourself, too, I hope. Already having a language can be a bit problematic for a learner, though. It means that when you think about a different language, you’re doing so in your native one. You can be tempted to make assumptions (usually incorrect) about how the language you want to learn works. And instead of a clean slate, you kind of have a clutter going on in your head. No offense.

One more beef with these baby-like methods, especially CLT: they’re forced to work with bad ratios in a classroom. One teacher is likely to have 30 students, which is much less attention per student than all but the most unfortunate babies get. That means that students are often interacting with each other (or told to, anyway) in the target language, when none of them really know how it works. They’re spitting errors at each other right and left, and they don’t even know it. This can lead to reinforcement of those errors, which follow learners all the way to advanced study or embarrassment in another country. The metaphor I was going to use (like a room full of babies trying to learn language with limited adult input) is, unfortunately, a real thing. A study comparing crowded Romanian orphanages and biological families showed that “Children who were institutionalized and children in foster care for a brief time showed substantial language delays, with some of these children not yet producing intelligible words.”

baby language

“Look, this is going nowhere. We’re just not communicating.”

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’ll be honest and tell you that I’d really like people to buy What The French?! This rant about language teaching methods and babies comes from me studying the field of language teaching and being frustrated by both sides of the spectrum: the stodgy Romans obsessed with charts and the wild-child hippies of language learning today. When my distinguished colleague and I wrote What The French?!, we tried to find a middle ground. We never hide the mechanics of grammar from you, because you’re not a baby. But the main strength of the book is that, after explaining the grammar in non-linguist terms, we show how it plays out in the language itself with example sentences. You can use an understanding of how the parts of language fit together to be more confident in your own use of those parts. And to make sure you can produce the structures, there are always interactive quizzes at the end of a chapter in What The French?!

I think it’s a pretty good book if you’re trying to learn French for the first time in a room full of non-babies, catch up in a grammar class that’s going way too fast, or brush up after not using the language for a while. But I co-wrote the thing, so I have to say that (and I’m not allowed to review it on the online store. Could you do that? That would be great).


  • Mme de B on Sep 13, 2013

    Hi Andrew,

    Just wanted to say that I found your blog while desperately trying to understand Liaisons Dangereuses and finding your tweet book, which was incredible. Anyway, I’ve been teaching French for almost 5 years and I have to agree with everything you’ve written here. The CLT method is great if students have actually read something about it beforehand, and you have a small enough classroom to work with, but problems can persist (it’s not beaucoup des!!!!) I plan to tell my students about your book because I think it’ll be really helpful. Have you read “Babel no more”? If you’re into language learning it might be an interesting read. Thanks again!

    • Andrew Livingston on Sep 13, 2013

      Thank you for the kind words! I have heard good things about “Babel No More,” so I guess I need to push it ahead on my reading list. Merci!


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