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The Role of Historical Linguistics in Language Acquisition

January 6, 2023

If you’re looking to learn a new language, you might want to start by taking a deep dive into historical linguistics.

In the study, ‘Intentional and Incidental Vocabulary Learning: The Role of Historical Linguistics in the Second Language Classroom’, Dr. James Stratton, Assistant Professor in the Department of English Language and Literatures at the University of British Columbia, explored whether knowledge of language history can be beneficial to learners when learning English-German cognates.

The findings showed that knowledge of language history can help learners remember the meaning of cognates more effectively, and learners who receive instruction on historical changes are better able to successfully predict the meaning of cognates they hadn’t previously encountered.

In the case of this study where participants were learning German, Stratton explained that by having a basic historical understanding of certain sound changes, you’re increasing your ability to understand meaning without memorization.

“With knowledge of just a few simple sound changes, you can essentially give learners access to the meaning of hundreds of words without even asking them to memorize the meaning,” said Stratton. “It’s a very efficient way to increase your vocabulary size by just building on the relationship between languages you already know, like English.”

Studying historical linguistics is not often considered as a common tool when approaching language acquisition, but the findings of this study have important, wide-spread applications for all language learners and language teachers.

“The results, in my mind, are quite groundbreaking, because no one has tested this empirically before, at least not to the extent that I have and on the languages I looked at,” said Stratton. “It shows that knowledge of historical linguistics can have a practical function in society.”

While many historical linguists and philologists have advocated for the use of historical instruction when it comes to language learning, especially the learning of modern as opposed to ancient languages, few studies have tested the effects of such instruction empirically under experimental conditions.

Language Sciences spoke with Dr. James Stratton about his study, breaking down intentional vs. incidental learning, acquiring historical linguistic knowledge, and how sound changes can give language learners indications to meaning.

Can you describe the differences between intentional and incidental learning?

People define such distinctions in different ways, but generally speaking, if the learner intends to learn something (e.g., a word), the process is intentional. In other words, it is the intent of the learner to make conscious efforts to learn. The instructor can aid in this process by drawing explicit attention to the word. In contrast, if a learner picks up a word, without initially intending to learn it (e.g., by reading) it is an incidental process. Learning happened incidentally as a by-product. Most vocabulary in our first language is acquired incidental. Think about how many words we know in our first language, most of which acquired from context, not by intentionally and explicitly studying the words from a list. Admittedly, once we get to school, we do often try to learn some vocabulary consciously. However, the big question is whether incidental learning is the most suitable approach for vocabulary learning in a second language. Can we follow the same procedure as in first language acquisition? Most research shows that incidental vocabulary learning is less effective for second language vocabulary learning. We can pick up some second language vocabulary incidentally, but the process is gradual whereas intentional learning can be quicker. Like I said, the distinction between intentional and incidental can be defined in different ways, but we can also often think of this difference as one similar to the distinction between explicit and implicit learning, that is, learning with conscious awareness (explicit) and learning without conscious awareness (implicit).

How might you suggest language learners approach learning more about language history to improve their ability to learn a new language?

My biased answer as a professor of language history would be to take a course on language history! In reality, I know this is neither practical nor possible for most language learners. Therefore, the responsibility, in part, must fall on the instructor or those making the language material (e.g., textbook writers). If instructors know about language history, they can provide students with a toolkit to immediately identify many cognates, making a second language less ‘foreign’ to learners. If we can convey to language learners that that historically related languages (e.g., German, Norwegian) are in fact related (e.g., English), with just a little knowledge of historical sound changes, they can gain access to many words in historically related languages.

Can you discuss how knowledge of simple sound changes in a language can give language learners access or indications to the meaning of more words in a new language?

If I tell you that p became pf in German, whenever you encounter pf at the beginning of a word, you have a strong chance at guessing the meaning (e.g., Pfennig-penny, Pfanne-pan). If I tell you that k became ch in many words in English, you can probably guess what German Kinn or Käse mean even if you have not encountered these words before. You do not need to be a linguist to make these connections or explain simple sound correspondences to learners, but this knowledge can really help students. In short, you can gain access to core vocabulary very efficiently with some basic applied historical knowledge.

At UBC, I teach courses on the history of the English language. Whenever I teach the First Germanic Sound Shift, which is a series of sound shifts that took place in Germanic languages and not other Indo-European languages, students are blown away. Illustrating to a native speaker of Hindi that it is in fact related to English surprises them (in a good way!). If you know about this sound shift, which is not esoteric to comprehend, if you are a speaker of a Germanic language, you can gain access to any non-Germanic Indo-European language. Latin p became f in Germanic language. This explains why we get for in English and für in German but pour in French, por/para in Spanish, and per in Latin. This explains why we get foot in English and Fuß in German, but pie in Spanish and pied in French, not to mention all the foot-related words in English that we borrowed from Latin (e.g., pedal, pedestrian, pod in tripod etc).


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