Empirical language acquisition

Frances Wood, a distinguished former student of the late great Paul Kratochvil, reminds me of another of his stories.

Paul liked to tell us this as we grappled with the use of classifiers (measure words) for Chinese nouns. The nearest equivalent in English is for collective nouns. In Chinese a basic all-purpose one is ge (“a person” is not yiren but yige ren), but one needs to use all kinds of classifiers before different types of nouns, like ben for a book (not yishu but yiben shu), or (if you wanna get pleasantly obscure, as I do) zuan for a sheng mouth-organ (yizuan sheng).

Anyway, Paul was just a kid when American GIs liberated his home village in Czechoslovakia in May 1945. They were kind of heroes, and he began hanging out at their barracks, gradually picking up English—entirely through daily aural experience.

After some time a grammatical rule subliminally formulated in his young mind: English nouns must invariably be preceded by the classifier fuckin’. No-one ever said “Gimme a beer!”, it was always “Gimme a fuckin’ beer!”; never “Open the window!”, always ““Open the fuckin’ window!”

Anyway, Paul’s spoken English came along rapidly, and his father, realizing his son had a real gift for language learning, somehow managed to arrange for him to go up to Prague to take an English oral proficiency test.

Paul knocks on the door. Commanding English military type shouts out, “Come in!”, and finding a scruffy kid in short trousers standing before him, barks, “Yes boy, what do you want?”

Paul, hesitantly: “Hey bud, I’ve come to take ze fuckin’ exam in fuckin’ English.”

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