When and how do babies start to acquire language, and are they innately predisposed to learn? Why is it more difficult to learn a second language later in life, with very few people entirely losing a "foreign" accent? These are questions that fascinate linguists like the 200 who gathered last weekend in Edinburgh for the international Gala 97 conference.
Their researches are academic: they are interested in fundamental rather than applied issues, but everyone connected with language learning and teaching from nursery and primary teachers to secondary subject specialists and adult tutors would benefit by knowing more about the processes that underlie acquisition. There appears still to be a deep divide between those who follow Noam Chomsky in his belief in a "universal grammar" with which we are all born and those who believe that the key is general cognitive development, and how a child interacts with adults.
Research on babies offers some clues. Being able to speak is not the first indication of handling language. One researcher has found that between the ages of six and nine months babies begins to "prefer" the speech patterns of their own language to those of another similar one. The comparison has been made using English and Dutch. Familiarity with sounds making up a word comes before the meaning of that word is grasped. The Gala 97 academics are reluctant to draw lessons for teachers, but in their research into the earliest grasp of language there must be implications for those dealing with children who have difficulty in learning, and those who help people whose command of speech has been damaged.
Likewise, an understanding of how the brain deals with language might benefit older learners. The general belief is that a second language is best acquired by immersing oneself in it. That is, by trying to get as close as possible to the circumstances in which a child absorbs language, but with the process speeded up. Yet there is an indication that knowledge of the mother language gets in the way of learning a second one. How should the obstacle be minimised?
In linguistics, as in other fields, the relationship between fundamental work and its practical application can be fraught. One group may ignore or disdain another. But as every pupil who struggles with school French knows, facility and fluency are hard to achieve. Teachers may seek help from the experience of countries where young people reach high standards in English, but any lessons about the deeper processes involved in all language learning should also be heeded.