On Language Learning: Part 2 — Parten’s Social Stages of Play

There’s a myth that children’s brains are sponges that just soak up language, thus quickly and effortlessly acquiring fluency in their mother tongue.

All work and no play

Constant repetition, an always-by-your-side guide (often the mother), an existence mostly free from social barriers and distractions, as well as unapologetic total physical response are just some of the components that for a child to be able to successfully grasp their “first language.” An ignored deficit in any of these components could predict communicative-related challenges for the child’s future.

As a once-fluent but now less-than-fluent French speaker with a not too dissimilar level of Japanese, I find the concept of language learning fascinating. The Foreign Service Institute ranks Japanese as the most difficult modern language for an adult learner whose native language is English.

All of this is why, when I stumbled upon a nice little graphic outlined Parten’s stages of play, I couldn’t help but compare it to my experience with both language learning and teaching.

  1. Unoccupied Play. Here, I was literally wandering around the countryside, which unbeknownst to me a the time would become my home for at least a decade. I was gazing at signs, hearing people speak around me, listening to announcements in the supermarket. With nothing other than instinctual cues (i.e. the in-train announcement was likely announcing the next stop), I was completely unable to communicate. I was simply exploring the Japanese language with no prior knowledge nor current organization or plan.
  2. Solitary Play. At this time I started to learn the two “phonetic alphabets” that are the essential foundation of learning the language: hiragana and katakana. A pocket-sized notebook was always on me as I would jot a quick note of a new word or perhaps a word to look up later on. If I were to use any Japanese at this point, it was limited to a few simple greetings or thank-yous. I was essentially mastering the absolute basics in order to engage with others.
  3. Onlooker Play. After some time really studying alone, I began to be able to “sit back and engagingly watch” other people communicate. I spent many evening (mostly) silently sipping beer and observing the people around speak Japanese. I laughed when they laughed. I tried to mirror agreement or surprise or sadness when it seemed appropriate. I’m sure I made countless mistakes, even at this mostly passive stage.
  4. Parallel Play. At times I was literally studying Japanese with someone who had a similar level as mine. We may stumble through a new grammar point together or share flash-card decks. Practicing these skills with someone else in a similar stage of development was extremely helpful and motivating. This stage also involves mimicking, which for me was either similar-level learners and simple interjections of native-speakers.
  5. Associative Play. As silly as this sounds in terms of communication skills, this phase, believe it or not, was absolutely as key as the rest of them for me. At this phase I could begin to try unabashedly “communicating” in Japanese. At a local onsen (hot spring bath), I would often encounter the same older men again and again. We would try our best to have conversations, though I would understand very little and quite likely the feeling was mutual. I was beginning to be able to communicate, though questionably effectively. There was most certainly a “substantial amount of interaction involved,” but the conversations were rarely perfectly “in sync.”
  6. Cooperative Play. This is when the fun begins. This is when the “world” opens up, and the possibilities are endless! I began to actually “participate” in conversations, successfully make simple phone calls, and so on. Each participant, myself included, had a clear “role” in our interactions. I could even feel my own “self-identification” as a Japanese speaker begin to unfold. There’s a concept of a certain reformation of one’s self as a major step towards fluency. Negotiating, expressing emotion, problem-solving, creating relationships, and navigating conflicts were all new tools that I could begin using. This is also, perhaps most importantly, when my focus could shift to be on the individuals with whom I was interacting with, as oppose to focusing primarily on the language itself.

Though it may not be a perfect comparison, I believe that this is a thought-provoking way to view one’s own language learning journey. As a language teacher, recognizing the similarities to these “stages of play” could help to understand your students, as well.

Both a creative and critical thinker, I am a UX designer based in Japan.

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