Factors That Influence Language Acquisition

By Jia Pu

Inspired by one of the class discussions, I’d like to share my first post with you about the factors that influence my acquisition of a foreign language. Before that, I’ll briefly introduce my language biography.

I was born in southeast China, with Mandarin my first language. As the official language, Mandarin is taught by teachers since I entered kindergarten. But in fact, I speak Chengdu dialect more often, especially in my daily life because both my parents are local Chengdunese and they have a deep affection for our dialect. Then later, when I was in elementary school, English became a compulsory course from grade 3. Ever since then, English has always been an important part in my life because under the influence of globalization, Chinese government is making increasingly more efforts to popularize English nationwide.

Therefore, from what is mentioned above, parents’ impact as well as governmental policy can be regarded as crucial factors that have great influence on my language learning. Although these aspects seem to make my language acquisition somewhat passive, personally I think they are both positive factors which can promote my desire to acquire a language. To begin with, speaking Chengdu dialect at home makes me closely connected to the local culture and history, thus further encourages me to learn more about the local dialect. From this perspective, I appreciate my parents’ influence on me. As for Chinese governmental policy to promote English, I believe it changes not only my attitude towards English and western culture, but also my life. I still remember the difficulty I had learning English grammar and memorizing words and phrases, which was absolutely not pleasant. However, because of the policy, English has became one of the most important courses for Chinese students, so everyone strives for mastering this language. It is due to this policy that I gradually developed my interest in English, to the extent that I chose English as my major when I was in college, which makes it possible for me to pursuit my further study now at McGill. That’s why I regard governmental policy as a positive factor for my language acquisition.

Then there comes the third factor that influences my study— communication. Before I set out from China, I heard that French is the dominant language in Quebec, but I didn’t realize how dominant it actually is until I arrived in Montreal. After a long-hour flight, the first thing I wanted to do was having a cup of coffee to refresh myself. I went into a chain cafe, stood in line, and started to think about what to order, only to find all the menu was written in French, which I could neither recognize nor pronounce. When it was my turn, I felt more embarrassed because “Bonjour” was the first word the staff said to me, to which I had no response since I don’t speak French. To my great relief, it turned out that the staff can speak English and I got the drink I wanted. But that made me realize the necessity of learning French in a place where I would stay for around two years. Later, I went through a lot more experiences like that. For example, many people in the region where I live only speak French. So it is common that I talked with them in English, while they just shook their heads and walked away, leaving me standing there, thinking seriously about my plan to study French. I think the way to fit in a new environment is to communicate with local people because they know the place and its culture so well. Also, meeting people from different background can provide a broader view for me. Now this third factor has inspired me to start learning French on my own and I’ve started to use some simple words like “merci” or “pardon” in my daily life.

We are all driven by a variety of factors on our way of language acquisition, which I believe are indeed motivations for us to keep learning.

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6 thoughts on “Factors That Influence Language Acquisition”

  1. Hi Jia,
    This is a lovely post. Thank you. As I was reading it, I found myself thinking about Rampton’s concepts of language loyalty, language expertise, and language affiliation. My grandfather was born in Chengdu in 1913 (his parents were missionaries – his father was a math professor at the West China University in Chengdu). He lived there until he was a teenager and then returned to Canada. I grew up hearing his stories of childhood in China. I am absolutely sure that I could not recognize Chengdu dialect, but when I read your blog post, it made me feel an affiliation that is based on no competence (no expertise) at all, but rather a feeling of closeness and family. Isn’t that remarkable?

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    1. By Jia Pu
      Hi Alison,
      Thank you for making comment and sharing your grandfather’s story which has such a close relationship with my hometown Chengdu. The theory of language affiliation is indeed worth discussing. It’s significant because many of us, who have no competence of a certain language or dialect do have the kind of affiliation towards it, which is amazing and hard to explain. I think I’ll do some further reading about Rampton’s concepts so as to have better understanding of this phenomenon.

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  2. Further commenting on the influence of official policy on learning language, I think it is pretty telling that on the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (aka the gaokao 高考), ‘foreign language’ (usually English) is a compulsory subject (along with Chinese and Mathematics) in both social-science and natural-science areas. Considering that the gaokao is an incredibly high-stakes exam (it’s a prerequisite for entrance in basically all Chinese universities, and also determines one’s majors), it basically forces everyone who wants to go to university to learn some English. The fact that English is a higher priority than history, physics or chemistry is sure to have an influence on Chinese people’s decision to learn English.

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    1. By Coco

      Hi Simon,

      I am impressed by your knowledge on Chinese Gaokao:) You are right, indeed, before 2015, Chinese Ministry of Education put emphasis on English language learning, giving English test a full score of 150 in college entrance examination (高考). The other subjects you mentioned, being chemistry, physics, and biology, each constitutes a score of 100, 120, and 80 in the subject of “Science Comprehensive Ability Test”, which are tailored to students who choose the science track. As well, for students who choose the arts track, history, politics, and geography, which forms the “Arts Comprehensive Ability Test”, each makes up a score of 100 in gaokao. As you can see, English plays an essential role in the future path and thus is the motivation for students to learn in order to achieve decent grades. Also worth mentioning is that both mathematics and Chinese are worth 150 points as well.

      However, as of 2015, the Ministry of Education implemented another policy for Gaokao, stating that English cannot be equally important as Chinese, the mother tongue. In that sense, English was given a relatively lower status than before. The Ministry lowered the score of English, making it a test which could take twice throughout an academic year. Nevertheless, as many Chinese parents are in the pursuit of sending their children abroad to receive bachelor’s or master’s education, they will still spend no effort in giving the youngsters English education. As such, I am not sure about whether the modification of the policy, which initially focused on addressing the importance of mother tongue, is achieving the original purpose. Conversely, the policy could be a piece of good news for those who do not want to go abroad and have hard time studying English.

      What do you think?

      Thank you,
      Coco

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  3. Hi Jia,
    Your language learning experience is very interesting. I was also born in China, but I do not speak dialect. When I was in my undergraduate study, I have many friends speaking various dialects. Personally, I think the dialects in northern China is easy to recognize since they only change the intonations. However, the dialects in Southern China is really difficult to understand. As far as I know, the grammar in certain dialects is even different from the standard Mandarin: Putonghua. As a person speaking southern dialects, how do you think of this phenomenon? Why do you think the dialects vary distinctively between the south and north? As a person born in North China, I can understand the northern dialects. Can you understand other dialects other than Chengdu dialects?

    As an international student here in Montreal, I hardly ever heard any Chinese dialects. Most Chinese speak standard Mandarin. When I was teaching Chinese kids in a Chinese school, I also noticed that one of students is from southern China, and his parents speak dialects to each other, but this child cannot speak the dialect. Is it very interesting to explore to what extent the foreign language study influence the development of dialects? Does the loss of a dialect decrease immigrant’s identity for their native country?

    –by Monica

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    1. By Jia Pu
      Hi Monica,
      thank you for your comment and questions. As for me, the phenomenon you mentioned is totally true—it is difficult to understand southern dialects because there are so many variations. I heard from one of my classmates at McGill, who comes from the southeast of China, that in the village where her grand parents live, there are two completely different dialects. Thus even living in roughly the same geographical location, there can still be differences in terms of dialects. That is a common thing in the south. And I believe it is caused by a number of factors. Among them, geography is a crucial reason. The geographic features are more diverse in the south than those in the north, for example, there are countless mountainous regions in the south. So in ancient times, it was difficult for residents in southern areas to communicate with people from other places, which made them stick to their own dialects.
      With regard to the relationship between the loss of a dialect and immigrant’s identity for their native country, I believe it is worthy of our reflection. Some immigrants from China, especially the second or third generation, are referred to as “bananas”, meaning they look like Chinese while behave and think in the western way. Most of them show no interest in Chinese culture or the dialects spoken by their parents, which I think will make things even worse generation after generation. Thus I believe through teaching dialects, immigrant parents could expose their kids to the culture of the places where they originally come from and hence reinforce their identity for the native country.

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