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Of sticks, twigs and logs

Posted: Wed Jun 16, 2010 6:03 pm
by Phil White
Nothing particularly profound, but a few things collided in my head this morning.

A few weeks ago I saw a report on a collie in Austria that appears to have a vocabulary of about 350 words and can identify real, 3D objects on the basis of a 2D representation, a cognitive process previously thought to be beyond the abilities of dogs.

This morning, I was out on the beach with my dog and had the following dialogue (yes, it was a dialogue - you just have to fill in her non-verbal responses in your mind's eye):

"Go find a stick."
...
"No, that's a branch."
...
"No, that's an old Christmas tree."
...
"No, leave it there, it's a plank."
...
"No, that's a twig, you'll ... See? You just broke it."
...
"Yes, well done! That's a proper stick! Fetch!"

It just made me think of one of the fundamental tenets of cognitive linguistics: The way we carve up the real world in the language we use actually shapes our perception of reality. For us, there are fundamental and very real differences between sticks, logs, branches, planks and trees and the fact that we have a language and names for these things allows us to shape our perception of reality accordingly. For Sheba, "stick" is anything wooden (that surprised me - she never brings me anything else throwable) that is potentially throwable and chaseable (although the Christmas tree was marginal in both respects, cute though it was to see her dragging it down the beach to me). Although a dog's perception of reality is undoubtedly not defined by language, it was interesting to see how she mapped a tiny piece of the very small amount of language she does "understand" onto her own reality to make some kind of sense of it.

Distinctions such as those between a "hill" and a "mountain" or a "branch" and a "twig" are fuzzy at best and entirely spurious at worst, but they are very real as soon as we internalize them. If I declare one of my hobbies as "mountain climbing" on a life insurance application form, you can bet your bottom dollar that I'll pay more than I would if I said "hillwalking", but when does a hill actually become a mountain? I can put twigs in my garden waste recycling bin, but not branches, but who can actually tell me when a twig is not a twig? Sheba?

As I say, nothing profound, but my dog has just reminded me how arbitrarily we carve up reality with language.

Re: Of sticks, twigs and logs

Posted: Wed Jun 16, 2010 7:20 pm
by PhilHunt
Actually I find this post quite profound.
I'm watching my child’s cognitive development each day and it's interesting to note how he categorises the world. He is obsessed with motor vehicles, especially cars and helicopters, or ‘otters’ as he calls them.
For him, every flying vehicle is an ‘otter’, while every vehicle with wheels is a car, with the exception of buses, which he has chosen to categorise as being distinctly different from a car.
Occasionally objects fall in two camps. A car with something long placed on top may be called an ‘otter’ while a toy ‘otter’ which has lost its blades is never called a car.
Somehow in his categorisation of the world he has build up a ‘model’ for these types of vehicles, the same way as edible food is ‘yum yum’ while dog poo is ‘yuck yuck’. Your dog probably doesn’t make that distinction; at least mine doesn’t.

Re: Of sticks, twigs and logs

Posted: Wed Aug 24, 2011 5:57 pm
by PhilHunt
Whilst on holiday reading a lecture by Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) I came across this passage which reminded me of this post:

"Learning how to speak is so obviously a much more difficult task than acquiring a foreign language in after life. First the child has to guess that the sounds it hears are intended to be signs at all; next, the meaning of each separate sound must be found out, by the same kind of induction as the meaning of the sensations of sight and touch; and yet we see children by the end of their first year already understanding certain words and phrases, even if they are not yet able to repeat them. We may sometimes observe the same in dogs."

And then nothing.....he doesn't expand on this in the slightest.

Ok, I know this is a translation from German, but you can't leave a statement like that hanging. Also, Read in a certain way, it could be understood that the dog, like the children by the end of their first year, can understand words BUT NOT YET REPEAT THEM. Does this guy have a talking dog, or what?

Re: Of sticks, twigs and logs

Posted: Wed Aug 24, 2011 8:09 pm
by Erik_Kowal
"Learning how to speak is so obviously a much more difficult task than acquiring a foreign language in after life."

That seems completely at odds with the evidence. There are very few children who fail to learn to speak (and when they do, it is almost always due to some kind of cognitive or auditory deficit / disease process), whereas many adults struggle to acquire a second or subsequent language. Even when they do acquire it, their ultimate level of fluency and idiomaticity is almost never as good as that of the child learning to speak its first language.

Re: Of sticks, twigs and logs

Posted: Wed Aug 24, 2011 8:38 pm
by Edwin F Ashworth
There was a very interesting programme on Horizon last week, trying to determine whether one normally-sighted (!?) person's idea of red say was the same as another's.

The experiment that really fascinated me was where an array of coloured circles, 11 identical and one a different hue, was presented to a person, who was asked to point to the odd one out. Members of a certain tribe, who had a different way of classifying colours from the Western one (I'm assuming that there is a single one in the West), could easily pick out a shade I couldn't (admittedly there are better TVs than ours), but couldn't identify another example, in a second similar test, where the difference seemed very obvious to me. The interesting thing is that they had a single word to cover both quite disparate shades (though they only had to point at the odd-one-out) - the conclusion drawn by the scientists was that language and perception are inextricably linked, and everyone has his own colour perception as well as language perception.

Re: Of sticks, twigs and logs

Posted: Wed Aug 24, 2011 10:13 pm
by trolley
"Learning how to speak is so obviously a much more difficult task than acquiring a foreign language in after life."

I'm pretty sure I was told that things would be much easier in the after life...

Re: Of sticks, twigs and logs

Posted: Wed Aug 24, 2011 10:40 pm
by Erik_Kowal
Especially if they've rebuilt the Tower of Babel in Heaven.

I hear they also have pie there.

Re: Of sticks, twigs and logs

Posted: Thu Aug 25, 2011 7:10 pm
by PhilHunt
Erik_Kowal wrote:That seems completely at odds with the evidence.
I completely agree with you Erik. In Hermann's defence, he wasn't a linguist but a scientist, especially known for his visionary work in the field of optics. He also took a keen interest in music and, evidently, language acquisition. As much as I admire his work on optics, I completely disagree with him on all points referring to language, children and especially dogs.

Re: Of sticks, twigs and logs

Posted: Sat Aug 27, 2011 12:47 pm
by Erik_Kowal
I wrote:"Learning how to speak is so obviously a much more difficult task than acquiring a foreign language in after life."

That seems completely at odds with the evidence. There are very few children who fail to learn to speak (and when they do, it is almost always due to some kind of cognitive or auditory deficit / disease process), whereas many adults struggle to acquire a second or subsequent language. Even when they do acquire it, their ultimate level of fluency and idiomaticity is almost never as good as that of the child learning to speak its first language.
Of course, we should allow for the differences in the contexts in which young children and adults are normally exposed to the process of learning to speak respectively their first versus their subsequent languages.

Generally speaking, adults put a great deal of emotional and educational investment into their linguistic engagement with young children, which is often quite intensive. The settings in which this engagement occurs, as well as the duration of the interaction, are also substantially under the control of the parent or educator.

By contrast, adult learners are expected to be largely self-motivated and autonomous, and they usually acquire their additional language(s) in an environment that is linguistically impoverished compared with that of the child: often, they are not learning the language in the country in which it is spoken (which means that they are not only not immersed in the language, they are not surrounded by the culture in which it exists and has developed); they typically have little or no access to native speakers with whom they can interact directly; there is no strong mechanism to enforce or reinforce the learner's efforts; and as adults, they usually have many other priorities to attend to that compete heavily for their time and attention with the tasks associated with language learning.

Given the obstacles and limitations faced by the average adult language learner, adults may not have lost as much as we might think of the capacity for language learning that they possessed as children. Much of the apparent difference in the ease of acquisition may in fact be attributable to the grossly different settings in which the language learning of children and adults usually takes place.

Re: Of sticks, twigs and logs

Posted: Mon Aug 29, 2011 11:48 am
by PhilHunt
Erik, I would strongly disagree with your analysis of adult language learning. I don’t know what experience you have had, but I would say it is a very dim view of what is a far evolved experience from 20 years ago.

Any good modern language school will insist on their teachers being native speakers of the language and material (audio and video) will be with native speakers. In contrast, school pupils learning foreign languages rarely have native speakers as their teachers.
Most modern language courses contain check-points of some sort or another where the students acquisition of the language points is assessed and reinforced. Revision sessions are often focused on these, which means the student is encouraged to correct their mistakes or else repeat material, allowing for a greater self awareness and auto-correction of mistakes. Old language teaching methods with large classes would often overlook this due to the need to follow the curriculum and inability to go backwards. In general, modern language teaching methods try to steer students away from large group courses and towards tailor-made courses for this reason [cost can be an issue though and you will find large group courses where companies wish to keep costs low]. Modern methods are far more flexible than in the past.
As for impoverished environments; I’m not sure if you mean lack of native speakers or lack of adequate materials but most modern language centres will contain more than one teacher and ample materials, including authentic sources such as films, magazines, videos etc.. Often the material supplied is of a didactic nature and of more use than some of the tosh given to kids in mono-lingual societies [my son's Thomas the Tank Engine books are hardly useful in the real world and contain punctuation and grammar errors].
I would say that English language teaching is ahead of the game in the foreign language field as it takes into account mixed language student classes. Looking back, my experience of learning Italian in England was dreadful because the Italian teachers tried to teach the language the same way they learned [??] Italian in school, through grammar terms and comparisons between the two languages. This failed on so many levels. Firstly, English people have a very poor understanding of grammar in their own language. When the teacher said things like “This is similar to your Present Perfect”, or “You require the Past Participle here,” It would always elicit a response from the class of “The What??” and then the teacher would have to spend half an hour teaching the class English grammar in an attempt to explain Italian grammar. This is ridiculous. Italians do not learn the first language in the classroom studying grammar terms but in the home. Secondly, my Italian teachers often had only a scholastic knowledge of English, which meant they made mistakes in English which then translated into mistakes in teaching. In contrast, good English language teachers teach only in English from day one and don’t make un-useful comparisons between English and the students mother-tongue or bombard the student with grammar terminology, which is paramount to learning two languages. Unfortunately, school pupils usually learn under the former method (explanations in their native language etc..) and it is no surprise that after 6 years of studying English in school many kids can’t speak the language.
I would say the biggest challenge to adults is that their brain synapses are set in their native tongue. They can often learn vocabulary easily and verb patterns but too often through a type of internal translation from their native language to the target language they graft their fist language structure onto the target language, much the same as a BabelFish translation. I see this daily, even in high level speakers. Just this morning one student wrote something like “As can be seen in this material is being discussed the problem of tardiness at work.” You cannot fault him on verbs structure, vocabulary, but the problem is clearly word order being translated from Italian to English. This is a common problem with English and one that happens much less between Romance languages. In adulthood it becomes far more difficult to overcome than in childhood. My 3 year-old speaks in both English and Italian and rarely confuses the two in terms of vocabulary. However, he is starting to go into the developmental stage when babies try to rationalise the grammar, so he makes odd mistakes such as “I want this one toy” or “Where go mama”, which shows an awareness of Italian structure and trying to imprint it onto English. Studies suggest that he will eventually grow out of this as it is a natural developmental phase in first language learners too; for example, my sister's youngests often says "We flied to Spain", as he is starting to recognise regular verb rules and trying to impose them on irregular verbs where six months before he probably never did.
I could continue writing on this subject from hours (but I have a translation to do). I’d just like to say that I don’t agree with Erik in as far as blaming language teaching methods or environment. I think modern language teaching, in general, offers a far better experience than in the past and far better than most high schools. Rather, I would say an understanding of brain development and first language acquisition is important to comprehend the problems faced by children or adults in second language acquisition.

Re: Of sticks, twigs and logs

Posted: Mon Aug 29, 2011 2:14 pm
by dante
Interesting Phil, I have similar dim views on this subject as Erik :) I'm surprised, my views are normally clear and to the point.
Any good modern language schools will insist on their teachers being native speakers of the language and material (audio and video) will be with native speakers. In contrast, school pupils learning foreign languages rarely have native speakers as their teachers.
And I'll strongly disagree on this point :) I've overheard a native British English speaker, obviously teaching English in some modern English school around here, saying similar thing while I was sitting in a cafe:

"The only qualification I have for teaching English is my British passport."

I don't think it helps really. A teacher who can't tell a noun from a papaya won't help a learner, and most probably will do harm in teaching them the language by making self-invented generalizations.
Ideally, second language learners will best benefit from a teacher who speaks both their mother tongue and the target language impeccably, and have perfect grasp of the structure of the respective languages. Since there aren't many of those out there, a compromise must be made between the requirements obviously. Learning a language simply encompasses absorbing a lot of knowledge to achieve fluency, and only people who have worked painstakingly on mastering different aspects of the language should think of directing others in their learning process.
Looking back, my experience of learning Italian in England was dreadful because the Italian teachers tried to teach the language the same way they learned [??] Italian in school, through grammar terms and comparisons between the two languages. This failed on so many levels. Firstly, English people have a very poor understanding of grammar in their own language. When the teacher said things like “This is similar to your Present Perfect”, or “You require the Past Participle here,” It would always elicit a response from the class of “The What??” and then the teacher would have to spend half an hour teaching the class English grammar in an attempt to explain Italian grammar. This is ridiculous
I'll quote two points Michael Swan said are his professional beliefs in English teaching http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs ... -my-bonnet:
4 Many teachers do too much grammar, for all sorts of bad reasons. And many teachers do too little grammar, for all sorts of bad reasons. (What might these reasons be?)
Knowing the purpose of Present Perfect or Past Participle seem like grammar basics to me. Learning these concepts won't take you too much time and you will find those concepts very useful in learning Italian, I don't have any doubt about it.

As I don't speak Italian, I'll use Serbian as an example, to illustrate my point. Serbian has three verb tenses, each possible time frame has a corresponding tense. There isn't Present Perfect, simple or continuous (or any perfect or continuous verb inflection/phrase). The verb in Serbian simply doesn't contain such information, it's only the time of the action that is of the concern for the verb, unlike in English where various information may be embedded into the verb phrase, other than time reference:

I have written a letter --> the focus is on the result

I have been writing a letter ---> the focus is on the action of writing

I wrote a letter ---> the outstanding verb feature is the time of the happening - past


Serbian verb will inflect for the past form in the first example, as the writing in its entirety happened in the past and that's the only concern of the verb. The verb in the second sentence will inflect for the present if more writing of the letter is still to be done, or for the past if your writing is no more, you've finished it, and the action of writing belongs to the past. Of course, for the third sentence, the verb in Serbian will inflect for the past verb tense form. The information contained in the Present Perfect/Simple/Continuous verb forms in English are communicated through the use of other linguistic forms in Serbian, not through the verb phrase.

That's what I think a learner of Serbian should need to know if they want to save themselves a lot of headache in learning:) It's not too much grammar, and gives the learner a useful direction in learning, suggesting the mental viewpoint they need to take in learning Serbian verbs as, I believe, the central point of any language.

Which obviously corresponds with the Mr.Swan's fifth professional belief:
5 Students have mother tongues, and there are times when it's extremely helpful to use or refer to them.
Yes, there are times when using the right comparison with the mother tongue helps a lot.

“As can be seen in this material is being discussed the problem of tardiness at work.” You cannot fault him on verbs structure, vocabulary, but the problem is clearly word order being translated from Italian to English.
Knowing grammar basics gives necessary automation which would enable him to recognize "the problem" as the head of the noun phrase "the problem of tardiness at work" and in turn to identify that chunk as realizing the role of the subject, which always precedes the verb in canonical sentences (read: in 90 percent of everything people say in English). In other words, strip your statement of time and place expression, various discourse markers and similar expressions that we sometimes may begin with, and you will see that it's always SV which is in the core of the sentence, SVO being most frequently used variation.
I would say the biggest challenge to adults is that their brain synapses are set in their native tongue.
Even if you're a neuro-surgeon Phil this is still a speculation :) It reminded me of Chomsky's claim that brain contains separate part which he named Language acquisition device. It also seems only a speculation, knowing that he's a linguist who introduced this term without giving much substantial scientific proof for his claim. http://aggslanguage.wordpress.com/chomsky/
Noam Chomsky believes that children are born with an inherited ability to learn any human language. He claims that certain linguistic structures which children use so accurately must be already imprinted on the child’s mind. Chomsky believes that every child has a ‘language acquisition device’ or LAD which encodes the major principles of a language and its grammatical structures into the child’s brain. Children have then only to learn new vocabulary and apply the syntactic structures from the LAD to form sentences
And this LAD thing invariably breaks down when we get older and we lose our supernatural abilities we had as children? And.. AAAAHHH..so that's why I'm struggling this much with my English. God, I've started to worry something is wrong with me :)

Similar thing is claimed here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_acquisition:
A major concern in understanding language acquisition is how these capacities are picked up by infants from what appears to be very little input
With very little input? I'll agree with Erik here:
Generally speaking, adults put a great deal of emotional and educational investment into their linguistic engagement with young children, which is often quite intensive. The settings in which this engagement occurs, as well as the duration of the interaction, are also substantially under the control of the parent or educator....Much of the apparent difference in the ease of acquisition may in fact be attributable to the grossly different settings in which the language learning of children and adults usually takes place.
and with Mr.Swan:
2 Adults don't learn languages like small children. It's not our job to recreate the conditions of first-language acquisition in the classroom; our job is to compensate for their absence.
Besides, maybe crucial consideration is that children's only means for communicating what they want,(mostly to express their disagreement with the way they're being treated as human beings by adults :)), is the one and only language they know, kind of their life support device. They soon realize that boo, uuuuhhh, wauuuu and other inarticulate sounds have relatively little impact compared with "Give me that bottle of milk over here you dumb son of a bitch". :)

To return to the question of teaching people a foreign language, teaching is a complex activity which, I'll agree with you Phil and Erik, would ideally be tailored to the individual learning preferences of every individual. Since in practice dealing with more students is the only viable option, it remains a task for every teacher to devise flexible tactics and strategies in their teaching. However, the crucial thing is that the teacher himself has adequate knowledge of the complexity of the language. Speaking the language as your mother tongue is far from sufficient for successful teaching, unless, of course, you've been lucky to persuade Merlin to lend you his magic wand for a while.

Re: Of sticks, twigs and logs

Posted: Mon Aug 29, 2011 6:33 pm
by Edwin F Ashworth
Dante says: A teacher who can't tell a noun from a papaya won't help a learner....

Would that be Carica papaya or Vasconcellea pubescens?

Re: Of sticks, twigs and logs

Posted: Mon Aug 29, 2011 7:11 pm
by dante
I'm afraid I can't answer that question Edwin, my Latin is a bit rusty:)
Ok, I'm lying, it's not rusty, I've never learned Latin :)

Re: Of sticks, twigs and logs

Posted: Tue Aug 30, 2011 6:00 pm
by PhilHunt
Dante,
I can completely understand your point of view. There are indeed many teachers who have no formal training in the English language and often fall into the profession as an easy way to see the world. This can be seen around the globe. However, any prospective student needs to do their research. If you visit an English school and see only young teachers in their twenties then you can guess they are probably transitory teachers, doing the job so as to see the world. Likewise, if a school has a reputation for a high turn-over of staff, changing teachers every year, then you can bet they are hiring fresh blood with little or no experience for a lower wage than more experienced staff. You also need to take into consideration geographic location. Italy is the most sought after location for teaching English thus competition is high. In contrast, Eastern Europe is less attractive to prospective teachers. You can call it a kind of economics of English teaching. If you want nice locations, sun and safety, you go to Italy/France/Spain. If you want high wages, China and other Asian countries are fast becoming the competitive locations offering higher salaries than Europe.

I never said that teachers shouldn’t know their subject, just that it was not necessary for them to use terminology with the students. This is an argument we have had before. I think it as unnecessary for an English teacher to use classifications (especially in a field which has ongoing internal debates on the subject) that will be un-useful for students to know. For me it’s like learning to drive a car by learning all the terminology for the car, motor and the laws of thermo-dynamics. Until you get in the god-damn car and start driving, this stuff is useless.
Ideally, second language learners will best benefit from a teacher who speaks both their mother tongue and the target language impeccably, and have perfect grasp of the structure of the respective languages.
I completely disagree with you on this point. I don’t think a teacher has to be a master in the students mother-tongue in order to teach a second language. If the teacher has enough experience and self-awareness of English then need never speak a word of the student’s mother tongue.
At times a working knowledge of the student’s language and culture can help correct odd mistakes or cultural variants, but mono-lingual classes can often lead to more problems than benefits. Teachers can start to replicate student mistakes. I’ve been teaching in Italy to mainly mono-lingual classes so long that I can anticipate what mistakes they are likely to make before they even open their mouths. This is just experience as a teacher and less to do with my knowledge of Italian. In fact, one of the most challenging students I had recently was an Iranian woman. We did not share a common language. She spoke no Italian and I spoke no Iranian languages. I taught her English in English from the ground up. I do admit that at one point I did some research into Farsi word order, as I knew she spoke this, in order to make her aware of a common translation error she was making, but apart from that everything was in English. This type of learning is often slower and more arduous but often more highly benefitial.

Regarding Swan’s quote; he is phrasing this in such a way as to teach a point about teaching English. It is not a statement of fact, but meant to open up a self-analysis of one’s teaching methods. It is true that some teachers often teach too much grammar, or too much of one type of grammar, as it puts them in a comfort zone. Other teachers don’t teach enough because they don’t understand it themselves. Any good teacher coming across a question that they can’t answer on the spot should go off and research the question so that next time they have the answer. That should be a rule for anyone in any profession. There is nothing worse than someone trying to fob students off with half-baked answers (and I admit that I have seen it done in classrooms) or someone unwilling to learn about something (for example, I once knew an American teacher who, after reading an article that Americans use the Present Perfect less than Brits, decided that she wouldn’t teach the Present Perfect….ever.)
Your analysis of the Present Perfect is besides the point in this discussion and, in my opinion, incomplete. This type of A+B=C analysis of grammar is at the heart of the problem, in my opinion, and what leads teachers and students of English to fall into comfort zones of learning.
Language is not maths.
Yes mother tongues can be useful at times, usually to save a lot of time and miming in translating simple vocabulary. Verb tenses are a different matter. If you reason in Serb to understand an English verb tense, you are going down the wrong track, in my opinion, however unavoidable this may seem.

As to your point about Chomsky and neuroscience. There is no connection. Chomsky hypothesised a theory about Generative Grammar as an innate ability in all humans. My point was more in relation to something suggested by, among others, Lakoff, especially in his recent books, about the way the brain creates ‘scripts’ and ‘frames’ which shape our thinking, essentially arguing that we do not think ‘rationally’ as humans and that this is an outmoded 18th Century view of the brain. I actually disagree with Chomsky, however, I have to respect his work and the interesting point that led to this theory, which was that children do not make predictable mistakes in sytntax, such as inverting auxiliary verbs when there is a subordinate clause in a question which we would expect them to do if they usually make mistakes in simple questions.

I disagree with both you and Erik about parental input. Even children who have been neglected by their parents or even actively constrained by their home-life learn to speak. I don’t think parental investment of time or emotion is the key.

To return to the main point, I will reiterate that there are some very bad teachers out there, but this does not only apply to teaching. There are some very bad plumbers, scientists, politician, economists and even footballers who shouldn’t be paid for what they do, but such is the way of the world. A savvy student needs to evaluate language centres before taking courses, looking for schools who keep their teachers, teachers who have more than 2 months of experience, teachers who are not just passing through, teachers who would rather teach their students than sleep with them (in case you’re wondering, Russell Brand was once an ESL teacher and tells stories of bedding his pupils) and students need to desire more than a human translator to master the language, regardless of whether the teacher speaks the students language or not.

Re: Of sticks, twigs and logs

Posted: Wed Aug 31, 2011 10:47 am
by Erik_Kowal
Phil, I think you are seeing this whole topic very much from the viewpoint of a language teacher operating in a formal language-learning setting or institution -- which, given that you are a teacher of English in a language school, is not surprising. But you appear to be completely disregarding all the other contexts in which adult learners may find themselves attempting to learn a new language, many of which are devoid of dedicated learning or teaching resources.

In terms of the number of people affected around the globe, these other contexts are substantially more important than the context of the language school or other formal teaching institution. Among the possibilities I can think of, starting with the most significant one, are these:

1) Economic migrants or refugees forced by circumstance to relocate in another country.

Such people typically find themselves at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap, with all that that implies in terms of the opportunities that are open to them. Especially when migrants from one poor country wind up in another poor country, they may well have barely enough resources to keep themselves alive from one meal to the next. People who find themselves living in a refugee camp usually have little autonomy of any kind, let alone the opportunity to take advantage of any formal tuition in the language of the (often unwilling) host country.

Even when some provision is made, it may not meet the needs of those it is intended to benefit. A little while ago I heard a current-affairs story on the radio which mentioned, among other things, that in the USA language classes for immigrants often take place at times of day or in locations that are impractical for the target population to attend. This is because they are either at work or the classes are not held in those areas of the city in which the new immigrants are living.

2) A spouse from one culture marrying into another.

Here the language acquisition opportunities available will inter alia be dependent both on the laws and customs of the adoptive culture, on the socioeconomic position of the socially established spouse, and on the dynamics of the couple's interpersonal relationship (for instance, whether one spouse attempts to restrict the social or education-related involvement of the other spouse in the community).

3) Elective learners not living in a country in which the language being learned is commonly spoken, and using self-guided materials such as CDs, teach-yourself books, parallel-language readers or regular novels written in the language being learned, courses on TV / radio / the internet -- possibly in conjunction with evening classes or membership of a club or society that centres around the language being learned and/or associated culture(s).

The success of this approach will vary widely, depending on such factors as linguistic aptitude / general intelligence, degree of general knowledge, prior experience of learning a second language, the learner's reading fluency in their first language, prior knowledge of the language being learned, motivation and determination to master the material, availability of native speakers as interlocutors, degree of personal gregariousness, willingness to risk making linguistic mistakes in front of others, and the amount of time the learner is able to make available for all the related activities. (Clearly, a retired person will generally have more free time at their disposal than the parent of young children who also has to hold down a job.)

To pick up on something else in your last posting:
PhilHunt wrote:Even children who have been neglected by their parents or even actively constrained by their home-life learn to speak. I don’t think parental investment of time or emotion is the key.
I disagree with you strongly on this point. Yes, they do learn to speak. But with only a limited input of vocabulary and restricted exposure to novel situations and cultural experiences (in the widest sense of that term), they do not learn to express themselves very clearly or articulately; and in my opinion, their sense of themselves (or other people's point of view) is not as well developed as it is in children whose parents have given them substantially more attention. I would argue that the capacity for placing oneself in another person's situation can only help language acquisition, though I am unable to prove that this is the case.

But while that particular point is open to debate, I don't think anyone who has been in the position to observe and compare the average linguistic competence and performance of a set of 11-year-olds from deprived homes with that of a set of their age peers belonging to middle- or upper-class homes (where substantial parental involvement with children is the norm) would seriously dispute that the middle- and upper-class children significantly outperform the deprived children in terms of either their vocabulary or their ability to express themselves confidently and coherently. Research has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that children whose parents regularly read to them when they are very young benefit enormously both linguistically, educationally and psychologically from this form of parental involvement.