For me, some of the most interesting (and often overlooked) factors in language acquisition belong to what is called the “affective domain.” Most language learners are familiar with the sort of raw mechanics of it all: textbooks, conjugation charts, flashcards. There are tips and tricks for acquiring new vocab or honing your accent. But it’s the affective – emotional, non-cognitive – parts of our human nature that I find particularly intriguing, and even the most skilled, analytical, mechanical learners are subject to strong affective influences. Heck, even linguists, who might be pretty familiar already with all of the ways that languages behave, might still be effected by the emotions that crop up as part of language acquisition. (Yes, linguists are humans too!)
Attribution is one such influential personality factor. Another one that really intrigues me is the concept of the language ego. (The word “ego” here should be read as “self”, not as in “My grade on that quiz really bruised my language ego.”) As first defined by Alexander Guiora, a researcher in personality variables in second language acquisition, the language ego is “the identity a person develops in reference to the language he or she speaks”. H.D. Brown notes that “Oneself-identity is inextricably bound up with one’s language, for it is in the communicative process…that such identities are confirmed, shaped, and reshaped.” If you’ve been monolingual all of your life, this concept might not resonate with you, but if you’ve studied a second language seriously, I think that might sound familiar to your experience, even if you weren’t aware of it at the time.
Let’s say, for example, that you think of yourself as a good student, smart, intelligent, and articulate. You begin to study a new language and suddenly…you’re just a baby. You’re largely illiterate, you can’t pronounce things to save your life, and you’re lucky if you can put two words together correctly. You’re erudite in English, but you’re a moron in French.
It can be more subtle than that, and it’s not just at the beginning level. Things you might not ever think about –grammatical gender, or some verb tense you haven’t used before – might force you to organize your world in a way that is unfamiliar, and that can be quite unsettling. (I once read an article by a woman who grew up in Communist China who talked about how she feels like a completely different person in her English writing, because when she writes in Chinese she says “we, we, we”, and in English it’s always “I, I, I.”) Different phonologies mean you end up sounding completely different, almost unrecognizable, even to your own ears. And even if you know the dictionary definition of the word, and can pronounce it beautifully, you might not grasp the subtle undertones and connotations and poetic reverberations of that word, not like you could with your own language. We each make choices in our language to demonstrate affinity, to negotiate position in a group, and a myriad of other social and personal functions; in languages with which we are less than familiar, we are much less capable of making those choices.
This is one of the big differences between adult second language acquisition and child second language acquisition. Children are used to sounding like children all of the time, and also have much more pliable, still-not-yet-formed egos. Adults, of course, have spent their whole lives defining their selves, and we tend also to really dislike looking stupid in front of other people – hence, the language ego contributes to another affective factor that impacts adults much more than children: inhibition.
Personally, I have found that I really enjoy that very very beginning phase of language learning, where you’re learning new words left and right and the language is all potential. During those times, everybody is equally terrible at everything, and no one expects much of you at all. It’s when I start getting really deep into it that I start to freeze up a little. I start to feel like – maybe they’ll realize I’m a fraud, I’m not really that good at this. I start to feel like – being good at learning languages has always been something I took pride in…what if I’m not really? And as the learning curve gets steeper, as it inevitably does, I start to become consumed with the idea that I will never be that polyglot scholar I am in my head, that fluent reader of texts in a dozen languages, and that my self, in any language other than English, is just a perpetual dabbler.
Wow, do you see what just happened there?? I just talked myself into a language-learning existential crisis 🙂 I think this demonstrates just how salient, and how powerful, the language ego really is.