Have you ever felt disconcerted by the unpredictable and chaotic progress of your child’s second language acquisition ? Dazzling progress seems to be followed by periods of slower growth, sometimes even laborious, not to mention times of regression. She seemed to master this notion, and all of a sudden she stumbles where she never would have in the past. Why does he now treat this irregular verb as a regular one ? And why does she no longer pick up any of these expressions that were so obvious to her previously ? But there are more twists to the story : soon afterwards, he will surprise you by unexpected expressions that will amaze you again.
Second language acquisition is as chaotic as, for example, the weather. Do you remember the butterfly imagined by Lorenz which modified the weather in Dallas by flapping its wings in Tokyo ? A seemingly trivial and barely perceptible action could have considerable consequences in a totally unpredictable fashion and far from where it originated. Even the simplest of complex systems, the double pendulum (or pendulum with two degrees of freedom) behaves in a way which is extremely hard to anticipate. Not that proper equations do not exist, but the system is so sensitive that any dynamic forecast becomes impossible. Look at the movement of the red ball of the double pendulum variant shown below when the main pendulum is made to swing. Forecasting its trajectory is just impossible.
Language learning is itself a complex process. It is remarkably well described by the Dynamic Systems Theory (DST) that was first introduced to linguistics less than twenty years ago. Second language acquisition depends indeed on a large number of cognitive and social variables : quantity of language input and output, feedback, the learner’s intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, the learner’s interactions with individuals, groups, or surrounding society, the learner’s first and second language knowledge, learning history and duration … and the list continues. These variables are not only numerous but also interconnected through rich and complex dynamics.
Learning is highly non-linear : the effects are not proportional to the forces applied. Consider now hiking as a metaphor for a linguistic journey. During the hike milestones will be crossed and left behind one after the other. As for language learning outcomes, they are not a nice orderly series of elements mastered one after the other. They are a dynamic set, the components of which sometimes overlap, scattered over a large “learning” surface area filled with pitfalls hard to avoid and overcome, or mountains hard to climb. Each new learning stage is the result of combined variables and influences applied to the previous stage. Lastly, the learning journey is closely linked to the child’s neurological, physiological and psychological starting point.
Are you now convinced ? The fine path of Second Language Acquisition is by and large unpredictable. In the case of children, however, the end state is statistically more likely to be a good command of the language. Chaos by itself is therefore not to be feared, but tamed. The key point to remember for the educator, as is well known, is to customize the teaching to the largest extent possible to the learner, their history, their present state ; to react with the utmost attention to each development and to guide them towards their ultimate objective. The main take away for the learner and their family is, once the right educator is found, to never get discouraged and conversely to always persevere. This is what you are already doing, isn’t it ? This will lead your child from chaos to actual learning, from struggle to success.
For more details :
De Bot, K., Lowie, W. & Verspoor, M. (2007). A dynamic systems theory approach to second language acquisition. Bilingualism : Language and Cognition, 10(1), 2007, 7-21.