Chess and language acquisition
In 2011, Deb Roy, a cognitive scientist and MIT researcher gave a TED talk about the birth of words and how we communicate the most popular topics through language. It has been gaining massive attention (around 2 million views) – and deservedly so, because the speech has some groundbreaking research data (drawn from the personal experiences of the MIT researcher) about how children learn language. Here are some takeaways, and how we can relate it to Chess.
By installing cameras in every room of his house, Roy was able to record most of his new-born son’s life. He then parsed 90,000 hours of home video to watch the progression of "gaaaa" to "water." This is the first time someone has actually documented the process of language acquisition, especially at such a young age.
With this knowledge, researchers are able to better understand how infants slowly distinguish different sounds, and finally create a word or phrase.
What’s interesting about the process of language formation is that a child first uses words associated with certain environments. For example, an infant is likely to learn the word ‘water’ after spending some time in the bathroom or kitchen, where that word is often used.
So there are certain ‘hot spots’ in the child’s immediate vicinity where certain words dominate, and as a result he can pick up the words associated with those hot spots.
Let’s look at words that are commonly heard in certain hot spots:
• Kitchen – water, food, milk, cook, dishes, wash, etc;
• Doorway Entrance – bye, hello, home, lock, etc;
• Playground – play, build, friend, sand, toys, etc;
But the piece that is missing is a ‘social hot spot’. This means that the learner not only interacts with the environment and hears certain words, but he or she also interacts with other individuals, forming a full pattern for language learning.
But what if we changed the environment? What would happen if a kitchen suddenly became a chess game and all the people around were the social triggers? But first, why chess? Well, because it is a special kind of environment, which allows interaction with both the game and the other player, forming a ‘social hot spot’.
Let’s see some words associated with chess:
• Chess – move, piece, check, square, strategy, defense, tactics, maneuver, etc.
Notice how the words are getting more complex? They are not aligned that way by accident - a child can greatly enrich his or her vocabulary with terms that are spoken near a chess board. However, those terms do not necessarily remain at the chess board, because words like strategic planning, initiative or maneuver can be found in various parts of life. For example we can hear a lot of chess terminology in business language and this particular aspect has helped many foreign players to become more expressive in the English language.
Also, chess does not only provide an opportunity to enrich ones vocabulary - it is also a language in itself!
In other words, if two chess players from different corners of the world played a game, they would have no trouble understanding each other, because they both speak the common ‘language’ of chess!
So what are the linguistics of a chess board? Well, there are certain notations, for example A1, H3, or H8, which are perfect for learning letters and numbers. But there is scope for greater language acquisition at the chess board, because players can discuss topics other than chess.
For example, a chess tournament or a public chess evening can be an active ‘social hot spot’ because there are numerous people having conversations and exchanging ideas, thoughts and opinions. This ‘social cluster’ presents a great opportunity for language acquisition and it can be done online by communicating with groups who are interested in chess.
In other words, it is extremely interesting to see how language is learned from a very young age - the features involved shed new light on what determines our vocabulary in the long run. And chess is an active element in this mix of "social hotspots" - the game can make your vocabulary flourish and it can also help with communicating and socializing with others.
What do you think about chess in the context of language learning?
Do you believe that certain exterior factors affect the way we talk?
Let us know in comments below.