Fluency, as I keep telling my students, is a trick. Given the right vocal apparatus, a chimp could do it.
Yesterday my colleague Vibeke gave a presentation, ostensibly on a certain teaching technique (very useful it was too), but really about the power of repetition, and in particular the repetition of large chunks of speech, in language learning.
How do you build a neural pathway? Through repetition. To memorise even a single word you have to fire up your retrieval sub-routines several times. And the trick that I refer to comes with memorising whole sentences, chunks of language, which serve two functions: as a sort of internalised feeling for a given structure (so that if you stray from it it will feel wrong), and a template which you can manipulate. It’s a short step from if I had known you were coming I’d have baked a cake to if I had seen you standing on the green I’d have shouted ‘four’, not to mention other still more useful phrases.
A language, in other words, is not a constantly unfolding logic puzzle where you get buzzed if you deviate from the syllogistic norms. It is a mix of pure memory, habit, conscious retrieval of more obscure items, and so on. And the more you repeat a word or a structure, the deeper it goes.
However, repetition gets harder as we get older. Children do all manner of things over and over; teenagers likewise – it is why so many of use learn purely useless skills in the long teenage years. As we grow older, however, we get more reluctant (or more intelligent, take your pick). We try to formulate ways to cut the corners of learning. And while we would get a rude awakening if we tried to do that with a musical instrument, for example, with languages we seem to have a fond belief in generalisable rules – if we learn the rules, we will know how to speak.
It is, unfortunately, a lot more primitive than that. We build a little stock of verbal habits. Perhaps part of the point of doing a language course is that we build a stock of good habits, and if we’re lucky (as Vibeke illustrated) we might also have a bit of fun doing it.