Monday, July 03, 2006

My son is almost three years old. Consequently, over the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity to observe his natural language acquisition. It has been fascinating. Several things surprised me, most notably that if he cannot pronounce or does not know all of the words in a phrase, it doesn't stop him at all. He just says the phrase, coming as close as he can to the unknown words. Over time, these "approximations" come closer and closer to the words he is imitating.

His internal model of the words and phrases is apparently far ahead of his pronunciation. If we misunderstand a word or phrase, he always corrects us and says "no", that is not what he meant. Then he repeats what he said. Sometimes, he will repeat the misunderstood word several times, while we try different guesses at what he is approximating. Once we arrive at the right word, he finally tells us "yes" -that's what he meant.

This seems very relevant for my acquisition of Thai, and at the same time it is somehow very reassuring. If a child's acquisition of language can be an accurate model for an adult's acquisition of a second language, pronunciation will come along by itself, without explicit practice, once an accurate internal model of words and phrases is established. This is consistent with my understanding of the AUA literature and other research on second language acquisition. The nice thing is that it's normal to pronounce things imperfectly at first, and it's not harmful as long as an accurate internal model of words and phonemes has been well-established by extensive listening to native speakers.

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