When I arrived at the primary school in Kenya, they all seemed surprised. I arrived at the school to see the children cleaning up the grounds in anticipation of the adults opening the classrooms and office so that they could clean those as well. I arrived early. I showed up like I said I would.
The teachers engaged in hurried conversation. They decided that the young children would not understand my accent and so therefore, I should not work with them without their interpretations. I asked a very simple question, “what is there to interpret with nursery rhymes”. “Hickory, Dickory Dock what does that mean in English”. Let me assure you that no 5 year old American child knows. Children simply like the sound of sounds that rhyme. It is a Universal language concept.
I conducted my hour lesson with the children which they thoroughly enjoyed to their teachers dismay. The teacher then asked them to draw me one picture. I suggested that the picture reflect one of the vocabulary words on the board for the week. We scaffolded the lesson. by reviewing the vocabulary words and then they drew pictures. The teacher did not see the connection to the art and wanted my swift departure , so she could lecture. What 5 to 8 year old child learns from lecture and copying from the board all day? I thanked the children for the lovely pictures and left the classroom frustrated and puzzled.
I taught all levels that week. The teachers continued to express concern about my accent. The children were eager to listen to me. I knew that the issue was deeper than how I sounded after all, I am a educated native speaker.. The text was there to accompany my speech, so it would be easy for children or anyone to adapt to the sounds of my speech. I spent most of the time teaching math, symbols are universal.
The problem was not my accent, the problem was my knowledge of English grammar. Kenyans used English vocabulary with Kiswahili grammar rules. So essentially they are still speaking Kiswahili just using English vocabulary. This would impede communication with a native speaker with a different set of internalized grammar rules.
Most language programs focus on implicit linguistic competence, grammar. Grammar lessons taught in ESL (English as second language) classes address one component of verbal communication. Verbal communication is multimodal ( involves different sensory modalities) and multimodular ( each modality is comprised of a number of neurofunctional modules). Four neurofunctionally-modular cerebral mechanisms involved in the acquisition and use of language are, implicit linguistic competence, metalinguistic knowledge, pragmatics, and motivation. This discussion focuses on implicit linguistic compentence and motivation which one acquires primarily during conversation.
What is the purpose of learning if you can not communicate with the native speakers? One acquires linguistic competence incidentally, stores it implicitly, uses it automatically, and subserves it by procedural memory. One acquires it incidentally as the acquirer directs their attention on acoustic properties of sounds while internalizing the proprioception that allows them to perform articulatory movements; or on semantic and pragmatic aspects of an utterance while internalizing its morphosyntax. One stores it implicitly. Speakers consciously utilize the computational procedures that generate sentences and the underlying structure of these sentences . In essence, we perform the basic functions of language without thinking about it.
English claims first place as the the world’s lingua franca. Language lives and breathes. It flows like water and shifts with the people and culture who speak the language. It borrows from speakers of other languages. Words express meaning in the context of how they are used. Linguistic competence becomes subserved by procedural memory, as are all implicit skills. Procedural memory is task specific. Procedural memory for language relies on the integrity of the cerebellum, the striatum and other basal ganglia, and on areas of the left perisylvian cortical region.
Proficient ESL students, engage in conversations and recognize the sounds of English . They recognize where to place the accent in words. They reorganize their brains to accommodate the new grammatical system.
The teachers knew that children possess more fluid intelligence (the ability to problem solve in novel situations). In layman’s terms, the students would internalize the grammatical structure of English quicker than the teachers and this would make the teachers uncomfortable and would be viewed as a challenge to their authority as opposed to a wonderful learning opportunity.
Sociolinguistic rules determine the appropriate choice among the structures available in linguistic competence. Paralinguistic competence comprise the comprehension and use of intonation, gestures, facial expressions, and everything that specifies the meaning of the sentence ( a sarcastic remark or a compliment, an indirect request or a factual question, taken with a figurative, metaphoric, idiomatic meaning or at face value) serve a crucial role. We estimate over half of spoken speech is not literally what we mean. We mean more than what we say, not mentioning implication, (something different from that spoken , metaphors, idiomatic expressions, indirect speech acts, or opposite of what we say, ie. irony and sarcasm) (Paradis, 1998).
Linguistic literature and communication pathology, share two domains under the term “pragmatics”, discourse structure and nonliteral meanings. Both domains have reported to be vulnerable to right hemisphere damage while relatively preserved in the context of dysphasia (Pierce & Wagner, 1985). The common denominator seems to be the necessity to rely on context and general knowledge in order to derive an interpretation. This context can be situational (including paralinguistic cues), but also discursive (including structure and contents of discourse, as well as turn-taking and the like, from which inferences and implications must be made).
Conversation is crucial. Language derives meaning from the interaction of humans and not just the mere memorization of utterances. Brain research indicates that higher order brain centers that process complex, abstract information can activate and interact with lower order centers. Real life conversation enhances students language acquisition skills. Conversational exchanges should be encouraged and not feared.