One word at a time: Plucking fruit from the tree of language

15th October 2015 at 15:30

Heather Martin Subject Genius

When I was three years old, I travelled from Geraldton in North-West Australia to France by ship. On arrival in Aix-en-Provence, the epitome of old world elegance, I went pretty much straight to school, the local école maternelle, not far from where we now lived in the rue Célony.

I was armed with just one long-form question. 'Qu'est-ce que c'est que ça?’ An impressive mouthful. Which, being a happy-go-lucky extrovert, I used at the drop of a hat, probably to an annoying extent. And it worked: learning through ostensive definition soon helped me amass a healthy vocabulary of common nouns. And no doubt accounted for my tendency to sprinkle my speech with random French words on my return down under two years later, by which time my English had been somewhat eclipsed.

I'm reminded of this on hearing the author Stephen King's stock response to the question 'How do you write?' 'One word at a time', he said, likening the industriousness, if not the scale, of his endeavour to the building of the Great Wall of China.

I like the analogy of writing with bricklaying, of course, and the concomitant emphasis on craft and skill. Throw in a bit of woodwork too, for the added lustre of honing and planing and polishing. The appeal resides in the metaphorical refashioning of words into tangible objects, rather than merely conceptual abstractions. Solid, three-dimensional words, with clout and heft and power. It's pretty much the same trick Seamus Heaney pulls off when he seductively reimagines his pen as a spade.

But despite the workmanlike humility of King's account, that really isn't how language works. You don't write sentences one word at a time. Unless of course they are one-word sentences. Sentences come in strings of words, in phrases, however fragmentary. Syntactically speaking, one word tends to dictate the next, words follow on from each other in a way that we perceive as grammatically necessary or natural. And many linguists argue that such syntagmatic pathways are hardwired even before birth. In the forthcoming 'biography' of his latest novel Make Me - an up-close-and-personal account of the writing process - Lee Child reveals how 'the first sentence arrived fully formed'.

Just a few weeks into our stay in Aix, I started to come home from school spouting inchoate French, incoherent, unintelligible, with no sense of where one word ended and the next began. Had anyone attempted to write it down, my 'French' would have appeared as one interminable snaking word truncated only by the need to draw breath. Probably very few people actually understood me. Gradually, punctuation and expression made their appearance on the scene, and almost imperceptible finger spaces of silence began to separate the sounds into meaningful words.

The point is, I didn't stick with the baby steps long. The disconnected nouns weren't going to get me far in communicating with my new friends in the playground. I needed the words to sing, to have rhythm and phrasing and cadence.

I appreciate that we cannot reproduce in schools the glorious serendipity of early language acquisition. But the fact that we can only approximate or simulate immersive scenarios doesn’t mean that we should ditch them altogether. On the contrary. Because as we all know, there is way more to language learning than externally imposed vocab lists. By all means throw in a few early on, when they still have novelty value, and for sure they'll make a big comeback further down the road, for anyone who becomes academically addicted to the subject, a diehard nerd. At last count my son, in his final year at university, had upwards of a couple of thousand words in the bespoke online dictionary compiled from his own reading, flashing up on his desktop with hypnotic regularity. And our house is littered with yellowing well-thumbed notebooks from the older generations, crammed with collections of linguistic esoterica.

In between, you need longer strings. Songs, sayings, tongue-twisters, quotations, exclamations, rhymes, raps, poems, stories, books: anything that accelerates the process, however indirectly, and puts words in a graspable context. I have found that children of all abilities retain all sorts of words relatively easily, even low-frequency ones generally omitted from the standard textbook, so long as they are hooked up to real discussion and subjects of genuine interest, whether moral or existential issues, aspects of physical or human geography, key moments in history, or fundamental principles in science. Be bold. Don't hesitate. Don’t be stopped in your tracks by all the things your pupils ‘don’t know’ and ‘won’t understand’: maximising exposure to the language in all its forms will inspire and encourage them to learn for themselves, to fill in gaps intuitively and deductively, even as they benefit from your guidance and planned instruction.

I definitely don’t want to be dogmatic about language-learning techniques, or to assert that one thing works and the other doesn't. Why bother? That kind of binary logic is necessary for generating machine code, for programming computers; human wiring, on the other hand, is altogether messier: more anarchic, more opportunistic, more organic. Things happen. Hence we should embrace multiple strategies, whether direct, indirect or integrated, finding as many complementary ways as possible of becoming familiar, even intimate, with language, through both theory and practice.

Language learning should be learning in the round. Knowledge is not a pot of gold at the end of a linear rainbow. It is there like fruit to be plucked from the trees or like flowers to be gathered from the wayside, disseminated by currents of conversation and fleeting images imprinted on the brain.


Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist, and assistant head at Kensington Prep School.