How I learn from paradigms

“Paradigms” is used here to refer to the way a language is analyzed in terms of its structures rather than its usages. So, for example, instead of hearing people say, “Here’s change for your twenty” and seeing the extended hand with the change in it and getting several more such exposures, we instead break the utterance down into “Here’s….” followed by a noun phrase and then have students practice saying “Here’s this….”, “Here’s that…”. Next we go to “for”; in some languages “for” is followed by a deformation of the noun it modifies e.g. Latin or Russian. Spanish offers problems for English speaker in distinguishing between “por” and “para”. Then there’s the lexical stuff: how do you say ’change’ in the sense of ’pocket change’ vs ’change’ in the sense of the difference between amount charged and amount tendered (Russian meloch’ and sdacha – I’m not sure if Spanish distinguishes between feria and cambio or some such – I told you my Spanish vocab isn’t very large).

Somehow, this latter process intrigues me, that is to say, I enjoy reading how different languages “do” this sort of thing. How do they “point out”? How do they mark prepositional noun phrases? How do prepositions divide up the world? How is existence treated? How does a language distinguish between pointing out and asserting existence? For example: English There’s a wasp vs. the wasp is there but Russian vot osa – pointing out vs. osa tam – adverb showing place where …. English uses the same word, there, while Russian distinguishes between vot and tam.

OK, so say I’m studying Russian. I read up on existential sentences and usage e.g. vot vs. von. When I’m with Russians, I use vot for things like when we get to the school: vot shkola. Perhaps they are looking for a different sort of building and are looking past the school, so I point and say, “Shkola tam” or “Vot shkola – tam”. If I’m merely asserting the existence of a school, I use “is” = yest’ as in, “There’s a school in my neighborhood” = “V moyom sosedstve (rayone) est’ shkola” and maybe by studying usage I discover that in Russian neighborhoods don’t “have” schools i.e you cannot say, “My neighborhood has a school” or “The park has a bathroom”.

Japanese speakers can give examples of this as can German speakers. It can get complicated. Those of us who are fascinated by this sort of thing study it not only for the L2 we are learning but for other languages as well.

Once I have learned to some extent how to use these from reading about them, I then notice them in my reading and listening, then I try to use them in my speaking and writing. Each time I use them successfully, it locks in the usage more firmly. I don’t think memorizing helps here except to the extent that you can use what you’ve memorized fairly soon after the memorizing. E.g. I’ve begun listing words in a language I’m studying and if I run into those words elsewhere, chances are I will lock them in. The dilemma is, do I use my time and energy in memorizing a lot of words, only a few of which will I encounter soon enough to remember them and lock them in OR do I keep encountering words in the input and learning them that way? Which is more efficient and effective?

Added to all of this is the indisputable fact, verifiable by a glance at even advanced pedagogical grammars, that rarely do teachers push any grammar except verb endings, nominal declensions, and special usage problems like ’por’ and ’para’, ’ser’ and ’estar’. We can see the result in our graduate majors in various languages where they seem to apply English usage patterns but plug in L2 vocabulary, what’s called “relexification” in Creole studies. IOW, their L2 doesn’t sound like L2 even though the words might be right, tbe pronunication or spelling OK, and the “endings” all correct, e.g. they got the dative case ending for masculine “soft” nouns correct but a Russian wouldn’t use the dative case construction there. It’s like wearing the football jersey, the helmet, the pads, etc. but the body underneath being mine – it’s not really a football player.

I’m not too satisfied with this so I’ll probably edit it later. I have other examples, plenty of them, of how I learn from paradigms. Maybe that will help the discussion of whether “balance” requires of us that we use them.

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