Learning a language is an art. How the brain works in the process of learning a language structure is very interesting. An infant keeps hearing a language continuously and its brain keeps trying to frame grammatical rules for the language on its own. It does auto-correction and accepts correction from others. It has been proved by Psychologists and linguists that till a child is less than eight years old, he has the capacity to learn any language ‘naturally’. It can be noticed that till that age, a child makes grammatical errors in sentence constructions and rectifies it after it realizes. This is a process of natural learning. After the child has learnt to speak any language properly, it is difficult for the brain to learn any language in the natural process. Then it has to undergo formal training of learning a language by studying the grammatical structure of the language. But in the natural process, the child does not learn grammar formally – it happens naturally. So it is better to teach children as many languages as possible till they are eight years of age and they would be able to learn it naturally without any pressure.
How does the brain learn any new language (a secondary language) is also interesting. Usually, it is the mother-tongue or the language that is spoken more at home, that the child learns in the natural process. Later, when it has to learn a new language, the brain tries to fit the new language into the structure of the first language it has already learnt. For example, being a Malayalaee when I’m learning Sanskrit, my brain will filter Sanskrit as per Malayalam language. The grammatical construction that comes to my mind would be by default that of my mother tongue. This first language Malayalam is called the ‘filtering language’ and Sanskrit now is ‘filtered language’ for me. The grammatical construction and pronunciation of the words in the filtered language will be different from the filtering language. So the brain does a corrective process while learning where it compares and contrasts both the languages. This method of learning a language is called Contrastive method.
To learn a secondary language after the age of eight, one needs to know the grammatical structure of one particular language properly. Without knowing a first language, learning of a second language is not possible. The brain has the ability to learn any particular language i.e., a Russian baby has the ability to learn Hindi if it is brought up in India. However, mother-tongue plays a very important role in the learning ability of a child. I discussed my own son’s example with our faculty, Jha Sir. My wife is a Maharashtrian and speaks to my son in Marathi and my parents, my brother and I speak to him in Malayalam. Since he was an infant, he has been hearing more of Malayalam than Marathi. My wife being a working woman is able to speak to him during the evening hours after she has come back from work. So, the amount of time he listens to Marathi is very less as compared to Malayalam. He is now six and is equally fluent in both Marathi as well as Malayalam. But the way he constructs Malayalam sentences initially is through the grammatical structure of Marathi. Then he corrects it into the Malayalam structure. For example, to say I gave a pen to Shreeram, I would say ‘I gave a pen to Shreeram’ and Shreeram would say, ‘My father gave a pen to me’. In both the sentences, the action of giving is represented by the same word ‘give’. This is the case with Marathi too. But in Malayalam, it is different. Shreeram would say, ‘Achan (father) enikku (to me) pen thannu (gave)’ and I would say ‘Njan (I) Shreeram inu (to Shreeram) pen koduthu (gave)’. As you can see, for the word ‘give’ there are two words in Malayalam which is absent in English and Marathi. So, when he used to construct sentences like these, (I think) he thinks in Marathi and translates in Malayalam because of which he used to say ‘Achan ennikku pen koduthu’. He used a wrong word to say ‘give’. Of course the process that happens in the brain is too fast for us to realize that even a process is happening.
This I’ve observed when my wife was learning Malayalam. In Malayalam, there are two words for ‘no’ – alla and illa. Depending on the context one needs to fix the word appropriately. Since such a thing is absent in Marathi (which is her mother-tongue), she took relatively more time to understand the usage of alla and illa as compared to using the other words for constructing sentences.
Jha Sir explained all this and much more because while learning a language one must understand why and how and the complete process that happens inside our brain while learning it. Also what are the pitfalls one can make while learning a language. Never have I come across such a wonderful language teacher like V.N.Jha Sir who could unfold the language structure before us in a simple and elegant manner.
~ Learnings from ‘Learning Sanskrit Language and Structure: Theory and Application’ a two-week residential camp at Chinmaya International Foundation from 16th – 30th June 2014.