Adult ability to learn a new language??

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Dinosaur, Aug 14, 2008.

  1. Dinosaur Rational Skeptic Valued Senior Member

    I have read somewhere that it is almost impossible for an adult to learn a second language as well as a person raised from infancy in a culture speaking that language. Actually, I think the article stated that the ability to learn a new language deteriorates sometime prior to a person being ten years old.

    What about a person born in a culture in which there are two or more languages spoken? For example: Canada, Switzerland, & Belgium are multilingual countries. I am sure there are others.

    Would a person raised in such a culture, be able to learn an additional language as well as a native speaker of the language?

    When I was in 10th grade, I had a French teacher who was alleged to be able to speak French, German, English, & Hungarian without an accent in any of those languages. I would have no way of knowing about the other languages, but I know she spoke English without an accent and was born/raised in Germany. I think she learned English as an adult.

    I once knew a woman who was a translator at the UN. She spoke at least 5-6 languages. She once said that on a 6-week vacation, she expected to learn the Serbo-Croatian family of languages well enough to be certified as a UN translator for those languages. Her salsry would increase quite a bit when/if she learned additional languages well enough to be certified.

    My experience in learning French made me realize that she had linguistic skills far beyond mine.

    BTW: I learned zilch French in school, but became able to cope with it when I spent a lot of time working on a programming project for NATO in Belgium. I am sure that I did not learn it well enough to be certified as an English/French UN translator, and it took more than 6 weeks to become intelligible as well as being able to vaguely understand the native speakers of Belgium French. .
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  3. Nasor Valued Senior Member

    I'm not sure how it would impact adult ability, but there are studies showing that young children raised in households where two languages are spoken usually learn BOTH languages just as well/quickly as a child who is only exposed to one - even if the languages are completely different (e.g. Chinese and Spanish). If you have the ability, exposing your kids to several languages as they grow up really does them a big favor.

    But as a similar anecdote, there's a guy I work with who speaks virtually perfect English, Spanish, German, and Portuguese. His father was German and his mother was Argentine, but he was raised in Brazil. So he was exposed to German and Spanish all the time while growing up at home, and learned Portuguese at school (and from TV, radio, etc). He learned English when he was much older (in Brazilian highschool/college), but he speaks it without any hit of an accent. Even most people who have spent years studying a language will have SOME trace of an accent, but this guy doesn't. Maybe learning more than one language at once while growing up wires your brain to be very good with accents?
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  5. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The key is to study a second language during childhood, even if it's in a classroom and not the home. I haven't seen any scholarly analysis of this phenomenon, but it's generally accepted as true that the younger you start, the easier it is and the better you'll do. I think it is both psychological (accepting the validity of an alternate way of communicating without objection) and physical (your vocal apparatus is still flexible enough to make the new sounds).

    Yes, obviously children who learn two languages at home are more likely to master them than children who start studying the second one in school, but they all have an advantage over the person who waits until adulthood.

    Not to say that there aren't exceptions, some people are just gifted. No matter what their background and how many languages they already know, most people could not reach a professional level of fluency in Serbo-Croatian, Slovene AND Macedonian in six weeks.

    But there's an additional point lurking here. Knowing two languages is a tremendous advantage when studying the third. For the same reasons: You already accept the possibility that there are strange and exciting new ways to communicate, and your vocal apparatus is more flexible than everyone else's.

    Spanish was a mandatory class in my school in the 7th grade and even though I didn't learn very much of it then, I got over the mental and physical hurdles and when I picked it up in high school it was a breeze. I became very interested in languages and from that point on the others were much easier.

    I don't speak any of them like a native, except perhaps Esperanto, which was designed to be easy and besides there are only about five "native" speakers. I'm only an 8 on my own scale in Spanish, and my next best would be German or Mandarin, closer to 6. But I do have good pronunciation; people compliment me on my tones in Chinese and I amaze the Czechs with my Ř. I do my best to think in the other language, rather than composing my thoughts in English and translating in real time.

    But except for Chinese, which has a low syllable count and is therefore spoken slowly, I can't speak any other language at the proper speed, and I have great difficulty understanding the high-syllable-count languages like Spanish and Italian when spoken at normal machine-gun speed.

    Still I'm better off than most Americans. I can carry on internet chats in several languages, and both Spanish and Chinese speakers give you a lot of respect for even trying. (That's not universal, e.g. the French and the Japanese can't stand the sound of it.)

    Regardless of the level of skill you achieve in a second (or third or fourth) language, there is an incontrovertible benefit:

    Most people frame most of their thoughts in words. (Obvious exceptions are musicians, sculptors, etc.) It stands to reason that our thoughts are constrained by the paradigms of the language in which we frame them. For example, Chinese has no tense, number, person, gender, mode, etc. You discover that half the time those things aren't important enough to add to a sentence. (That's one reason it's so economical with its syllables.) And when they are, you have to be specific. Instead of saying "I went to school," you're more likely to say something like "Yesterday (or last year, or for the past five years) I attend school."

    Chinese also doesn't have prepositions, those stupid little words which you have to get right or you sound like a foreigner, yet they have virtually no meaning. (What's the difference between getting somewhere ON time and IN time?) If you want to express a relationship between two things, you're not limited to a set of two dozen prepositions you inherited from your Stone Age ancestors. You have thousands of nouns and verbs to choose from and you can say exactly what you mean.

    Thinking in Chinese is a challenge. You have to organize your thoughts differently, and you have to be conscious of things that you would normally say by rote.
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  7. kmguru Staff Member

    IMHO, the interesting part is the brain does not store information in specific languages. It stores information in a picture like fractal mathematics (some say hologram). Hence irrespective of the language shortcomings, one can be very innovative and solve highly complex and systemic problems.
  8. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    As a linguist, I'm sure that the way the brain organizes the information it stores, and even the decisions about which information to store in the first place, are highly shaped by the language in which we think.
  9. kmguru Staff Member

    If that is the case, then can we conclude that one group of people will be smarter (better decisions, innovations etc.) than the other due to their language characteristics?
  10. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    In general, no. Language evolves right along with culture: philosophy, technology, economics, politics, religion, art, as well as, obviously, the influence of the natural environment on all of those things. So each society ends up with the language that is best suited for making decisions and being creative in their own specific circumstances.

    So of course you get mismatches in today's world of highly mobile populations. People whose languages are adapted to the culture of nomadic hunter-gatherers will find it a bit cumbersome when they emigrate to a city. We would have the same problem going the other way, with no concepts in our language or our thoughts for a hundred different nuances of blood relations and with only arcane polysyllabic Linnaean Latin names for every species of mushroom that might or might not be edible.

    Of course we city folk look down on the nomads as being incapable of making smart decisions and innovations due to their "inferior" languages, because we're in charge of the world and we get to decide who's superior and who's not. But that's strictly a value judgment. If the USA and Russia decide to destroy civilization with nuclear weapons in their dispute over the Georgian gas pipeline that bypasses Russia, the people with the Stone Age languages will probably fare much better in the resulting devolution than we will.

    That said, I think that once a society progresses through several stages and its language undergoes a series of adaptations, that language acquires the attribute of adaptability and becomes better suited to the future advance of civilization. I'm thinking of Chinese, the language of the world's oldest continuous civilization. The Chinese have never been overrun by people who impose a new language on them and make them start over--as the British people have, first by the Anglo-Saxons and subsequently by the Norman French. Chinese has been adapting smoothly for something like seven thousand years or more, since the Agricultural Revolution occurred there a little later than in Mesopotamia, whose languages have been discarded and supplanted multiple times.

    As a result, as I have written here before, I think Chinese has become a language that can handle just about anything, and equips its people to make better decisions and innovations--to be "smarter"--than the rest of us. It doesn't immunize them against the ravages of history so they've had their wars and their periods of foolish leadership, but they always seem to come out of them pretty well. They absorbed both the Mongols and the Communists, and turned them into Chinese versions of themselves. Every day I hear Americans struggle to come up with terminology for information technology concepts, and I don't think the Chinese, with their streamlined grammar and monosyllabic morphemes, have that difficulty. The Chinese term for "computer, dian nao, has one-third fewer syllables than our word, and that ratio carries over into the entire language. It was also formed without borrowing any clumsy, unfamiliar foreign words.
  11. Walter L. Wagner Cosmic Truth Seeker Valued Senior Member

    You're talkin' 'bout my 'puter?
  12. synthesizer-patel Sweep the leg Johnny! Valued Senior Member

    I think this is right in some respects, but I also think that the ability to learn new languages can be fixed into the wiring of our adult brains, if the ability is used enough during childhood - I have no evidence for this other than personal experience.
    In my late teens I went travelling around europe with a girlfriend of mixed indian / british heritage - she was brought up in india and learned two indian languages (hindi and urdu I think - can't remember) as well as english from her father - she then moved to italy where she learned italian - she was fluent in 4 languages by the age of 9, and by the time I knew her she could also speak german and french very fluently - during our travels I noticed that she had the uncanny ability to pick up languages with apparent ease and could hold basic conversations in spanish, greek, flemish, dutch and danish in a very short time - in fact within abaout a week week her danish was almost as good as mine - and my mother is half Danish!!!
  13. Orleander OH JOY!!!! Valued Senior Member

    so if new languages are easier to learn as a child, what is easier to learn as an adult?
  14. temur man of no words Registered Senior Member

  15. CutsieMarie89 Zen Registered Senior Member

    I believe the current consensus is that small children as in infants to about the age of five learn very quickly and the memory is more permanent than it is in older children and adults. The brain is constantly creating new synaptic connections and destroying ones it does not use and it can do this at an alarming rate. When you think about it, it makes sense. Children learn how to control their bodies, interact with their environment, how to interact with other people, how to speak and understand whatever language they are exposed to and much more. I mean they start from zero and change quite a bit by the time they are five years old. But after that the brain stays pretty static and the changes become slower and slower until about the end of puberty when the brain starts to do something similar letting useless connections die and brain density increases, until about 25. Which I suppose correlates with the amount of learning one has to do as the enter young adulthood. At least thats how my professor described it. But I also think some people just have a knack for learning languages, like I can learn a few phrases just by watching a movie in another language w/subtitles. But I don't have much interest in learning new languages.
  16. kmguru Staff Member

    In my travel to China for marketing activities for a major U.S. company, I took a 28 year old technician from my company to babysit the stuff we sold the Chinese. My follow up visit in two months found Steve speaking 80 words. In about 8 months, he was able to act (with a lot of chega chega) as a translator between myself and the Chinese. Amazing...
  17. OilIsMastery Banned Banned

    Complete nonsense. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton learned 36 different languages fluently with native speaker qualities.

    And he only learned a few of them before he was 10.
  18. EmeraldAxe Registered Senior Member


    Can you recommend some books that specifically deal with the brain's ability to learn and the language it uses during its learning (neuroscience + linguistics)? I understand neuroscience fairly well, but I know next to nothing about linguistics, so bear that in mind with your recommendation. Anything too technical will probably be lost on me.
  19. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Sorry, I've never gotten into that side of linguistics. I only pass for a linguist because these days there's almost no competition for the title on SciForums. But except for classes in specific languages, random readings and bull sessions with people from several continents who share my interest, I have almost no formal education in the subject. Ten years ago there were several members who could teach me.
  20. CharonZ Registered Senior Member

    This is partially true. More precisely one should add that it is harder and almost impossible to learn a different language accent-free, if the phonems of the language are significantly different. From what i recall about early childhood language learning, an infant is able to distinguish all possible phonems in the human language. However, while learning a particular language, the brain (probably the Wernicke area, but don't quote me on this) gets trained to distinguish sounds associated with the learned language more effectively, but due to this it becomes less proficient in distinguishing elements not inherent to the language. After around 5-10 of age this is almost hardwired and with exceptions usually only able to be retrained with a disproportionate effort. This is the reasons why e.g. Chinese native speakers (who have not learned English as a child) have a hard time to distinguish between r and l, whereas people with a non-tonal language will have trouble to distinguish the different tones.
  21. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    CharonZ is 100% correct.*

    There were two Indian grils in JHU's cognitive science department's graduate seminar, which I sat in on for a year. Some words in their language differed only by one phonem that is never used in English. I.e. there is a pair of never used in English phonems -one in one word and the other in the other word as the only differences between the two words. (The PS has my atempt to illustrate this in English.)

    We non-indians made a list using a pair of these words, 20 words long, using each word 10 times in sort of random order. One Indian girl read list to the other who wrote them down. About 20 of us non Indians listened and some tried to write "1" or "2" down as the words were read.

    I gave up after about 10 had been read as even with very careful attention all 10 sounded exactly a like to me. Needless to say, the Indian girl listening and writing a list of 20 made a perfect copy of the list being read by the other Indian girl.

    If you can not even hear any difference when phonems new to you are switched, how can you learn to discriminate them?
    *Perhaps not on his Wernicke's area guess. Certainly that is were the meaning of words (and their role in sentences) is determined and it is at least near earlier stages of accustical processsing, but perhaps the discrimination of phonems to determine the words is earlier. - Just guessing too, as I do not know.

    PS I am not sure as it has been 30 years, but to illustrate with two English words: Bat & Pat - They differ only, I think, in that the two different phonems the first leters represent are alike in all characteristis (for example both are "plosivies") except one is "voiced" (vocal cords vibrate) and the other is a non vocal phomem. As I recall every phonem is a construct of about 7 "characteristic"- if that is correct, there are 49 different phonems but most languages only use about half of the possible ones. If you have a young child, let her/him hear very strange languages I think is a good Idea. Not necessary for you or him to know what the word mean, I think, only to hear the non-English phonems when the child still can disciminate them. Check all this PS out as it is only my ideas from memory - Not my field.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 17, 2009
  22. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I can attest to that. Although my mother was born in Chicago her parents only spoke Bohemian ("Czech") so she grew up fluent in the language and always spoke it with her friends and family. I think most people would agree that Czech is a "very strange language." It crams impossible combinations of consonants together with no vowel: Plzeň is a city and vstup means "entrance." And it has one phoneme that does not occur in any other language I've ever encountered, and for good reason: Ř is a J and a trilled R pronounced simultaneously.

    She never taught it to me because back in those days people actually thought it was a handicap for a child to grow up bilingual. (No, Momma was not very good with introspection.

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    ) Nonetheless she continued to speak it when friends and family came over and I spent many hours hearing it without understanding it.

    When I began studying foreign languages I noticed that I wasn't having nearly as much trouble with the strange sounds as all the rest of the students. All those non-English phonemes were rattling around in my head even though I'd never used them.

    I can even say Ř. When I was in Czechoslovakia my friends said that if I ever wanted to immigrate, they were sure I could be granted instant Czech citizenship by walking into any government office and pronouncing that letter.

    Now if only I could master the aspirated BH in Hindi. I can do GH pretty well and DH acceptably, but I just can't get BH.
  23. Nasor Valued Senior Member

    Children obviously have certainly special abilities to learn new languages that people rightly make a big deal out of, but it seems to me that adults have advantages over children in many ways when learning a language.

    I'm pretty sure that when I spent a year studying French for perhaps 10 hours/week in college, my French ability improved far more than the ability of a young French child would over any given year. After that year I probably had a vocabulary roughly equivalent to a French 2nd or 3rd grader, and the ability to compose sentences that were grammatically on par with a 4th or 5th grade French elementary student. The major hole in my ability was that I probably couldn't pronounce the words nearly as well as a French child. But I got there in a year, while it took the hypothetical French 10-year-old that I'm comparing myself to many more years of studying his own language to reach that level of ability.

    I would pretty routinely sit down and systematically learn the spelling and definition about 40-50 new words (the new week's worth of vocabulary for the class) in just a few hours using a combination of flashcards and repetitively writing the words over and over. Could a young child do that? Perhaps they could, but I recall having a relatively hard time learning the spelling of equivalently-complicated English words in school when I was young. Of course it's possible that I could indeed have learned new words as quickly when I was young and it simply seemed harder then because I wasn't making a serious effort at it, but as best I can tell I am genuinely better at memorizing new words than I was when I was very young.

    So when you consider the overall change in ability to use a language vs. time spent studying, it seems to me that again adults have an advantage over young children. I don't really know for sure, but I strongly suspect that if you took a random sampling of adults and young children and gave them both the task of learning as much of a foreign language as they could in a month, the adults would probably smoke the children in terms of final absolute ability. The children might be better at pronouncing things properly and perceiving different phonemes that were alien to them, but the adults would probably end up with a much larger vocabulary and significantly more sophisticated understanding of the language's grammar etc.
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2009

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