It doesn’t happen too often, but now and again I come across a linguistics book that has some immediately liftable, transferable insights for language learners, both formal linguists and otherwise. So it was with The Language Game, my star read over a quiet Christmas up in Aberdeenshire this year.
As polyglots and language enthusiasts, we often get lost in the intricate maze of vocabulary lists, grammar rules, and perfect pronunciation. We diligently chase language as a concrete, unchanging entity, forgetting the exhilarating dance of meaning that is the true essence of language.
But what if we’ve been approaching language learning from a slightly skewed perspective?
The Language Game, Morten H. Christiansen and Nick Chater’s paradigm-changing exploration of the improvisational nature of language, suggests that maybe we have. They argue that, much like life itself, language is a constant improvisation and renegotiation of meaning. From the ever-shifting, multifaceted definitions of words like light and live (just think of all the different, often tenuously connected things they have come to mean), language isn’t a fixed system, but a dynamic game we play. At any point, we can recruit existing items in novel ways that suit our immediate needs. This game relies almost completely on context, arising from our in-the-moment desire to communicate rather than adhering to strict, unchanging rules.
What does this mean for us second (third, fourth etc.) language learners? It reminds us that language isn’t a static mountain to be conquered, but a playful river we navigate as it continues to change. The path forward lies not in rote memorisation, but in embracing the creative process of meaning-making in the moment.
Lessons from The Language Game
The Language Game is a compelling, accessibly written book and an easy read even if you don’t have a background in formal linguistics. I really recommend you dip in yourself to benefit from the insights inside it. In the meantime, here are the main polyglot takeaways that I found beneficial – all great rules to learn by as a foreign language enthusiast.
Meaning isn’t set in stone
Ease off on exact dictionary definitions and rigid rules. Focus on using words in context, adapting to the ever-evolving “language games” around you, consuming as much contemporary media as possible.
Don’t downplay the role of setting in what words and sentences mean. If something doesn’t make sense, pull back to see the bigger picture, and have a stab at guessing from the context. Always close attention to the social landscape where language unfolds. Words are chameleons, their meaning shifting with the hues of the situation.
Mastery takes repetition
Even the expectation that toddlers incorporate ten new words perfectly into the mental lexicon is on shaky ground. Investigations into the infamous ‘cheem’ experiments reveal that kids grasp new concepts quickly, but lose them quickly without reinforcement.
Let go of the pressure to “gobble up” language in this way. Language use isn’t simply ‘learn it once and remember it forever’. It builds gradually, layer by layer, through repeated exposure and playful experimentation. Fleeting memory may fades, but repeated use cements meaning.
The Language Game is Just Charades
Gestures, context, and playful guessing guide our understanding. Just as children infer meaning from context, so too do we adults when we play charades. The metaphor of charades – using whatever is at hand to produce meaning in the mind of another – extends to everyday communication, too.
Embrace the guessing game – it’s a powerful learning tool. Guessing is good – don’t be afraid to take a leap of faith with a new word. Use it, even if you’re unsure.
Remember, language is a game, and games are meant to be fun. So let’s play!