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, like a gaggle of geese or a school of fish. 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!”

Paul’s spoken English came along rapidly, and his father, realizing he 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 come to take ze fuckin’ exam in fuckin’ English.”

Such stories made a change from my encounters with scholars of a more classical bent, like Laurence Picken and Sir Harold Bailey. See also Language learning: a roundup.

2 thoughts on “Empirical language acquisition

  1. Bonjour, J’ai bien connu Paul KRATOCHVIL (et son adorable femme américaine : Laura) à Cambridge (Oct 1979 to 1980) and later on, in France, In Tours (Loire). Grace à Paul, j’ai pu avoir accès à la bibliothèque de l’université (et découvrir Kenneth White !! ) et j’ai pu changer mon Job alimentaire de serveuse au “Three horseshoes” à Madingley et me retrouver à “Toutstone House” near Bury St Edmonds au sein de la famille Simpson, entourée de chevaux et de moutons !! Une renaissance …
    Je garderai toujours en mémoire la découverte de la nourriture chinoise dans un restaurant à Cambridge avec Paul… qui avait commandé notre repas en langue chinoise, of course : surprise délicieuse !!
    Merci infiniment de garder la mémoire vive de Paul K qui était un être exceptionnel… de part son intelligence prodigieuse mais également pour son regard bienveillant sur nous, “simple humain” !!
    Cathie Verriere – Rouen/Bergerac – France

    Liked by 1 person

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