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Adults learn language to fluency nearly as well as children: study (medium.com)
751 points by bluffroom 12 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 335 comments





This got plenty of upvotes and the comments in here are mostly personal anecdotes. I’d like to point out a couple of things:

1. The author is the CEO of an online language learning company. That’s a strong indication that the article might be biased.

2. This whole “study” is based on data gathered through a “viral Facebook quiz” in which people provided self-assestments of their own skills and learning process. Facebook is not a controlled lab environment, and people are subject to all kind of biases and thus terrible at self-assessment. This whole thing screams “amateurish” and I would not trust it.

3. Results are apparently so ambiguous and controversial that, as the author states,

> a number of journalists have misinterpreted this paper badly, resulting in a lot of articles falsely stating things as embarrassing and misleading as “Becoming fluent in another language as an adult might be impossible”, when in fact the opposite is shown.

This whole thing smells funny. Think I’ll pass, thanks.


> This whole “study” is based on data gathered through a “viral Facebook quiz” in which people provided self-assestments of their own skills and learning process.

The quiz (which you can take yourself at http://archive.gameswithwords.org/WhichEnglish/) measured syntactic competence with various tasks that were carefully tuned and based on prior peer-reviewed research [1, sec. 2.4]. At no point did quiz respondents provide self-assessments of their linguistic ability, beyond demographic information like identifying their native language and year of first exposure to English.

[1]: https://l3atbc-public.s3.amazonaws.com/pub_pdfs/JK_Hartshorn...


The number of Swedes who self report being fluent in English is absolutely nuts. When hired a lot of them have problems talking about anything other than situations you'd encounter as a tourist.

Sure, they are _pretty_ good, and can manage, but I find calling it fluent silly.

Maybe I have a very high expectation of what 'fluent' means, but when a person can't explain anything more advanced than what they did over the weekend I start to worry about them coming away from meetings with a full understanding of what was said.


I consider myself fluent, but I rarely talk outside of what happened on the weekend. For some reason it's harder to think outside the box when using a foreign language. I however understand 99% of what would be said on a meeting. Understanding is much easier than explaining.

To add on to what you said - understanding is a subset of fluency. You also need to be able to adequately explain/communicate your thinking in order to be considered fluent. This requires a sound "theory of mind for language" in order to be able to figure out when someone is misunderstanding you, and avoiding potentially confusing diction choices, which a lot of non-fluent speakers struggle with.

Then it comes to definition of fluent. To me 90% of Swedes are fluent. What you're talking about is "native", in my book.

I've worked with Swedes, and they were all basically bilingual in English. Except for a bit of an accent, their English was better than many native speakers. Of course, my sample size is only 20, but I was impressed. I was told that many schools in Sweden dedicate one school day a week to English with all subjects being taught in English during that day. Those students end up fluent.

That is not at all common practice. It's the first I've ever heard of it.

My fiancée moved here to Sweden and trying to get by with English when in contact with the tax office, doctors, municipalities etc has been impossible. The tech workers I work with are very good at English compared to the average person here, but would self-assess their skills about the same.


I think it very much depends on the population. Online quiz takers will skew young, whose English is a lot better than that of middle aged and older Swedes, on average. Most Swedes I know have at least competency in English, and I know a lot of them, from being in Sweden too, but I'm sure my sample is also biased. Nonetheless, I'm not suprised at the fluency of Swedes in foreign langauges compared with other countries. As with the Netherlands, they are not an inward-looking culture particularly.

I heard the same thing ~a year ago, on a cognitive science conference (on language and cognition, http://web.archive.org/web/20181113181842/http://cogsys.stro...). Was surprised. It was presented by pure scientists, so didn't expect any commercial bias.

I’m not contesting that. It might very well be true that adults can become proficient in a language at a quasi-native level. As expat and language learner I sure hope it is.

I’m merely suggesting that this article in particular (and the study behind it) might be bogus and that people should not fall for it.


The language learning mechanisms for children and adults seem very different at any rate.

I have been teaching languages for years and the bottom line is the vast majority of adults don't put in the hours.

1 hour a day is seen as a really dedicated adult language learner. If you only did activities that involve languages for 1 hour a day as a kid you would almost certainly flunk school and be way behind your peers.

Adults can simply run away into their native language when things get too frustrating. Kids have no where to run to, there is no choice to not learn and no choice to give up.


I started learning French 20 months ago at age 63. I've gone from beginner to B2 (upper intermediate) level in that period. It takes a lot of time. I immerse myself as much as possible. Whenever I'm doing chores, cooking, walking I listen to French podcasts. I watch French YouTube channels. In the evening I watch French TV shows and documentaries. I talk to French people regularly on Skype. I read French novels and French newspapers. Essentially, I try to live as if I were in France. It's working. I have the huge advantage of being retired, so I have more time and I'm kind of obsessive about achieving goals. If you put in the time, you can become fluent in a foreign language at any age, especially with all the resources on the internet.

I'm reminded of how mathematicians do their best work in their 20s. Many assume this is because of brain decline in later years. I bet it's mostly to do with responsibilities and life getting in the way.

Erdős didn't let responsibilities get in the way. https://wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Erd%C5%91s

Yeah but you can only have one Erdős:

> Possessions meant little to Erdős; most of his belongings would fit in a suitcase, as dictated by his itinerant lifestyle. Awards and other earnings were generally donated to people in need and various worthy causes. He spent most of his life traveling between scientific conferences, universities and the homes of colleagues all over the world. He earned enough in stipends from universities as a guest lecturer, and from various mathematical awards, to fund his travels and basic needs; money left over he used to fund cash prizes for proofs of "Erdős problems" (see below). He would typically show up at a colleague's doorstep and announce "my brain is open", staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later. In many cases, he would ask the current collaborator about whom to visit next.

You can't have Erdős if you don't also have the dozens of mathemeticians with homes, families, and patient and forgiving spouses who tolerated and supported him so that he could focus on his work. Mathematicians as a profession can't really exist as an order of traveling monks, nor do most of them even want to.


Erdös also did a lot of Amphetamines and claimed Math stopped when he took a break from it.

It probably did. Just from a perspective of idle layman speculation, Erdős probably had a self-medicated, undiagnosed form of adult ADD. He routinely used amphetamines and methylphenidate (i.e. the two most widely-prescribed ADD drugs) and when he stopped using them for a month, he was incapable of focusing long enough to do his work. From the research I've done, he managed to maintain prescriptions to his stimulants based on a "depression" diagnosis, which is also consistent (adult ADD often manifests as depression).

> Erdős never married and had no children

OP is probably thinking of Euler, who according to a contemporary often worked: "with a child on his knees, a cat on his back "

He couchsurfed his friends homes, collaborating on math papers with them.

Not taking responsibility is one way of not letting responsibilities get in the way

It's probably both. At the top of the Gauss curve, you can't afford a single thing to be off.

True, although I don't think most mathematicians are really at that level. I think the common perception of mathematics being a young person's game is not just based on the top-level people, but on everyone, and while all mathematicians are certainly smart (-er than average?), most are not at the "if one thing is off they won't be the next Newton" level.

Why would only mathematicians get so many life responsibilities in their late 20s, while most other profession don't?

I would have guessed mathematicians were, on average, supernerds with less life responsibilities than average people.


You're probably wrong about the last part (I doubt there's a statistically significant difference between mathematicians and other people in regards to life responsibilities, the big ones obviously being having children).

About the first part, I don't think mathematicians specifically get so many life responsibilities - I think most people do most of their "learning" in their 20s, and most of the execution of that learning in their 30s and onwards. Research mathematicians are a bit different in that, like most academics, their serious intellectual work which pushes the frontier and gets them career credit is of the same kind of learning/intellectual work.

E.g. compare to programmers- most will learn to program in their 20s, pick up a few languages/technologies, then spend a big chunk of their career with those.


The original assertion is that mathematicians do their best work in their 20s. Not learning. Most math discoveries we know were made by guys under 25!

This makes mathematics an outlier scientific field, so if your explanation is "life responsibilities", you have to explain why mathematicians have more life responsibilities than others.

So my money is on some brain development thing. Not that I have any better argument than "what else could it be?".


The actual age difference it's not all that large compared to other disciplines.

> In a study of nearly 2,000 famous scientists throughout history, he found that mathematicians were the youngest when they made their first important contribution. The average age at which they accomplished something important enough to land in history books was 27.3. By contrast, biologists were 29.4 years old, physicists were 29.7, and chemists were 30.5.

>mathematicians make their best research contributions (which he defined as the ones mentioned most often by historians and biographers in reference books) at what many might consider doddering old age: 38.8. That age is very similar to those he found in other sciences: 40.5 in biology, 38.2 in physics, and 38.0 in chemistry

Math is also a bit unusual compared to most of other disciplines in that math dissertations are often written very quickly and you don't need months or years of studies/experiments to support a thesis. That could easily explain the 2 year gap between mathematicians and biologists noted above.

http://www.massey.ac.nz/~rmclachl/overthehill.html


Thanks so much for injecting facts into this, and changing my view a bit!

My, now less certain views, were based on some article I read years ago where the peak ages for various fields were listed, and were quite further spread out. I especially remember that historians peak in their 60s!

Like someone says in your article "This myth, if you wish to call it a myth, is so prevalent that it's quite probable that there's some truth to it", but I'm now far less certain and flippant about. Thanks again!


> I especially remember that historians peak in their 60s!

I bet when you're old enough that you can see firsthand how perceptions of the same events change over time, you get a hell of a lot better at recognizing that in history.


Many prominent mathematicians throughout history fit this pattern, but largely because they lived in different times. Mathematics builds on itself: 200-300 years ago, there was less mathematics to build on, so you could get to the frontiers a lot faster. Also, academic fields were less delineated--not only was Newton both a mathematician and a physicist at a time when the two weren't distinct fields and physics barely existed, but he also lived in a world where wasting the entire rest of his life studying Bible codes and nurturing personal feuds seemed like a reasonable idea.

There are also confirmation and sample biases involved. Everyone hears about Terence Tao because Terence Tao's story is remarkable. All the 38-year-old mathematicians who are making those research contributions are normal, and hence their stories aren't interesting.


Everyone gets life responsibilities in their late 20's, but perhaps mathematicians operate closer to the peak of human ability, which makes any dropoff in performance more obvious.

Kids are also graded on an easier curve than adults. Inevitably, skill is assessed in comparison to your peer group, so kids are doing well when compared to other kids their age. For any given activity, especially language, most adults participating in it have years of experience— an adult beginner will seem incompetent for a long time, despite being objectively better than a kid that has been learning for the same amount of time.

there is a big difference if you have the opportunity to learn through immersion or if all you have is language classes in school.

until age 17 i had no more than 2-4 hours of second and third language classes. (english from first grade, french from 7th) even including homework that just barely approaches 1 hour a day of language learning.

my own efforts resulted in grades ranging from B to D and my english skills after 10 years of that were less than mediocre.

my english only improved through immersion for a year in the united stated during grade 11. after that one year i reached near fluency (except probably for a much smaller vocabulary)

at age 21 i was able to learn dutch through 3 months of immersion alone (no classes). of course i have reached far from fluency, but i learned enough to be able to read and speak, to allow me to continue practicing and learning without classes.

children only then have no choice to learn if they live in the country where the second language is spoken. in fact it may well be that the second language becomes their first and they learn their own parents language as a second language.


I can personally attest to how fast a child will learn a new language when he is given the same kind of language courses an adult is.

When I was 6 years old I decided to take Chinese/Mandarin lessons for a few months. If I compare my progress then to my colleague in his 20s who is learning Chinese in the same way - one hour a day, 2 times a week with an instructor - he certainly is learning much faster than I did. After 6 months he has already surpassed my level and is have basic reading/writing skills, which I never achieved.

I also had German courses from age 8-10 with a similar schedule. After that 2 year period I still could not have anything but the most elementary conversation in German, despite getting very high grades in that class.

On the other hand, I decided to become fully fluent in English in my late teens, and after intense self-directed practice and a few years in an English-speaking environment, no one is able to tell that I am not a native speaker.


Teenagers in particular tend to have an inbuilt compulsion to develop skills. Teenagers will spend hours upon hours of their spare time improving their skill level at sports (including skateboarding), musical instruments, video games--whatever grabs their fancy. Even if you lock them in a windowless room with 60 hours of homework, they'll still get really really good at doing those pencil-spinning tricks with their fingers.

I think it's a natural part of the human psyche. If you read about the Mongols or the Comanche or some other horse-nomadic culture, the one thing you learn is that they are really really good at horse archery. As in: virtually every adult male Mongol or Comanche could accurately perform archery from horseback, at full gallop, while hanging from the horse sideways to shield their body and firing arrows from underneath the horse's chin. How is that possible? Well, if you grow up as a Mongol boy, once you reach the stage in life where a Western kid might get a skateboard or a guitar or whatever, you have horses and bows, and all the older kids can already do that stuff.


To my own experience, I think the time an adult can physiologically commit to learning is reduced.

For example, I noticed that in high school if I really liked a subject I would just sponge it all up, no need for spaced repetition and I could be focused for hours.

In college, I started to feel the need for spaced repetitions but yet be focused for hours.

Now, if I get to do something I really enjoy intellectually, I can get 30-45 minutes of focus. Then rest and spaced repetition. Last time I tried to push 3 hours of study, I not just forget most of the content but it affected my mood so badly.

Somewhat, I see the same pattern with physical activities. I could run have hard workouts back to back in high school while now it is so easy to overtrain and rock my hormones that I need to be really careful.


> I have been teaching languages for years and the bottom line is the vast majority of adults don't put in the hours.

This is with learning pretty much anything. Adults typically just have less time than their younger counter parts.


I would say the opposite can be equally true.

If a child is learning a second/third language, they'll be way less interested than somebody that has to learn it to because they're doing it out of genuine interest or for a job.


> I have been teaching languages for years and the bottom line is the vast majority of adults don't put in the hours.

There is another important aspect: learning your second or third foreign language (or subsequent ones) is easier than the first one. I think studies or comparisons which neglect to take that into account are flawed. Adults (at least outside the US) are likely to be learning their second foreign language, not their first, hence should do relatively well, in spite of a (possible) age handicap.


I think it really depends on the set of languages, e.g.: I can see that for an English native speaker learning French after Spanish can be easier but I can’t see that helping with Chinese.

Well, at least didn’t help me much


I have started to ponder a hypothesis that this thing applies to almost any learning. People claim that it is easier for kids to learn, but for most of the things kids learn, they use much more time than any middle aged could in practice. Like, "ooh, look, my nephew learned backflip on a trampoline so quickly and easily, I would never learn that". Yep, he just spent hours a day on the thing for the last couple of months. You do the same and I bet backflip is not that hard.

I feel you on this one. Definitely an anecdote, but here it goes.

I have a friend who had no music education in his life at all. He decided to pick up piano at the age of 28. 3 times a week for an hour with a teacher + an hour a day of his own practice (on average). 4 months later, he plays better than most kids who started at the age of 6 (like me back then) who practiced for a couple of years, and he understands music theory at the level way above that. When he makes it to a year, I expect him to be at least at the same level as most kids who practiced for about 3-4 years. All it takes is the regular habit of mindful practice. What adults don't have in nearly unlimited free time (compared to kids), they definitely seem to compensate with efficiency of their time spent learning. The key aspect is regular practice, which most adults can't seem to stick to.


Maybe we haven't been aware of adults' ability to learn so well because our society demands a narrow system whereby (and this is a simplification to make a point) kids only have one shot to master one specialisation when they grow up, and then they have to stick at it for the rest of their life or else risk economic vulnerability.

I know you can have a second career (and master it over many subsequent years), but the structure of society does make it hard for a full-time working parent of five to suddenly stop earning income for a while go back to school (or study with a master). So the data on this could be low due to that.


As a person who has picked up quite a few musical instruments (well enough to perform them with other people in front of other people), your anecdote meets my experiences.

I used to be married to a violin teacher. In my experience, ids are very slow, they just put in a lot of time every day (if they are progressing).

However, motivated adults have a lot going for them (I know how to set my own practice regimen, I know how to connect previous skills, I have the freedom to set at least some of my schedule).

I believe that adults are able to learn new skills a lot faster than kids, they often choose (usually for good reasons) to spend their time doing other stuff like pursuing advances in skills they have already mastered.


As an adult who just started picking up a new language as well as piano, I agree with you. But still, as in the article showed, it might be harder for adults to achieve mastery given the same amount of practice.

I have a hypothesis that given the same practice regime, adults started learning much faster because they had so much more experience with other related things (e.g., another language, years of listening to music, etc) . These knowledge can be transferred up to a certain point. But after that point, the kids do better because they are not bounded by previous experiences.


To add to your anecdote :) an older co-worker decided he wanted to learn the guitar. I thought it was great, but he came in one day and said he either read or some doctor friend told him it's almost impossible for someone over 40 to learn something like an instrument. My response was that a kid may have an easier time, but that IMO it's largely about time available to practice.

He figured out the most efficient way to practice, took lessons, and less than a year later is pretty comfortable playing sets of songs in front of people.


I've been thinking the same, lately. I also wonder if we underestimate children's patience. In class, the point is to learn new things. And there's a lot of progress done from school year to school year. So, for six or so hours a day, five days a week, school children are shown new things, some of which are very new ideas, and expected to keep at it until they understand. They don't get to "change jobs" or even "settle into a pattern." They're often wrong but have to press on. And, somehow, they do.

Imagine there was a hunter-gatherer society was able to observe our own. They'd undoubtedly be amazed a the marvel's we've been able to achieve: men walking on the moon, a global internet stretching from one side of the planet to another, safe buildings stretching thousands of feet into the sky, even the massive surplus of things like clothing. But they'd also probably find it difficult to understand how we're able to maintain a system where everything, including these achievements, is heavily dependent upon literally billions of people spending large chunks of almost every day doing 'A' when they'd much rather be doing 'B' - for decades. Of course the answer is because people feel they have no other choice. Children are just a microcosm of our own society.

Totally. Language learning is all time spent practicing. I’ve been learning a second language, while my two year old is learning his first. All day, he’s surrounded by people speaking with him and listening. Granted, he has other core concepts to pick up at the same time, but it’s essentially his job. Meanwhile, I can grab an hour here or there.

Plus, he has no embarrassment, hesitation, or fear of failure.


> Plus, he has no embarrassment, hesitation, or fear of failure.

This is key. I spent a period one summer in a Welsh immersion course. There were some very well-educated, clever Americans there (I would like to think I was one) and people from more polylingual parts of the world often with less explicit linguistic training. The latter tended to do much better chiefly because they set aside ego and tried to do what they were there to do: learn Welsh. The Americans were afraid to make mistakes and sound like idiots, so they didn't take the risk and consequently achieved less proficiency. The best learners were an Englishman (with a PhD in physics) who had shed his pride through thirty or forty years of vagrancy, and a Breton, who was just gifted with humility.


Would we (as adults) be able to learn a totally new language, unrelated to ours (say, Chinese, for those of us who speak Indo-European languages) just from being dropped in China and listening to conversations in Chinese all day? It would be an interesting experiment to do.

Only if you were given the attention a Chinese child gets.

In Spain, the immigrants that I talked to said it took them about 3 years to become proficient, and the first year was horrendous and hard as they could not communicate the essentials of daily life (going to stores, navigating public transit).

At twenty, I moved countries. I literally had to lie and say that I do not speak English to get the locals to speak to me in the local language.

Telling them that I'm Finnish worked well enough, until I was introduced to a Finn. That was one of the more awkward moments of my life!


You have to have the desire to improve and communicate, which a child who speaks no language has. Plenty of people live in language bubbles in foreign countries, and barely learn at all, but if you actually expose yourself to the language as much as possible, it definitely works.

> Plus, he has no embarrassment, hesitation, or fear of failure.

This is important. As adults who are likely experts in something, it can be very hard to put our egos aside and know nothing again.


Yes, me too.

There's a few things that are relevant:

- When you're an adult, you know more of the context. Everyone as a kid has at some point thought "why am I learning this?". When you're older and you've seen a bunch of stuff, you know why.

- When you're older, you are typically not under pressure to pass an exam. IMO exams cause horrible problems. You're often under pressure to learn more than one class. And you more than often need to learn a lot of specific things that you need for the exam, but are not required to understand the subject. Like what the exact form of some equation is that you for some reason aren't allowed to look up in the exam. You end up spending a lot of time as a kid learning how to pass the exams rather than learning what you're supposed to learn.

- Adults have a better sense of when they actually understand something, rather than just superficially. Part of this is the classroom tyranny. As a kid, you are quite conscious of being judged. After all your future is on the line, and if the teacher thinks you're dumb, bad things might happen. As an adult, you're in class because you want to be in class. If you don't understand something, your status as an adult also helps in how help is presented. You don't get the "omg why am I teaching this kid chemistry, I could be making meth for big bucks".

- When you're an adult, nobody thinks to limit your quest for knowledge. If a kid asks "why is light a particle and a wave" you give them the Discovery Channel answer and stop them from asking too much. If an adult asks, they are welcome to sit in a quantum physics lesson until they leave by graduating or quitting.


Fuck this made me realize how shitty many of my grade school science teachers were. The go to response was always the rote textbook answer and never at all sparked any interest for me at all. They themselves probably learned the lesson the night right before then taught it in the classroom.

> Adults have a better sense of when they actually understand something, rather than just superficially.

Dunning-Kruger would disagree; in another context (martial arts), this is why we have so many people quit after 2 years - they think they have a complete understanding of the art because they know all the moves and quit out of frustration that they are still getting corrected. I've been training for a decade and I still think I'm bad.

I get what you were saying; however, I disagree with terminology used.


Dunning-Kruger effect is not as large as it is made out to be in pop-sci literature. It does show a bias in precision towards one's own evaluation, but the overall evaluation is still fairly accurate.

My nephew has a serious advantage though. He is one hell of a lot more pliable than I am. He can hit the ground pretty hard and be back up practicing, but my middle aged body would be in traction.

I will probably not learn to do backflips ;-).

I would like to learn to ride a hoverboard though. That looks fun.


A lot of this has to do with learned tension. You've literally taught your body to be stiff by staying in a limited number of different positions for hours a day, whereas children still have good mobility. If you fall due to passing out, unless you hit your head on the way down, you're likely to find that you don't hurt at all afterwards.

Fix your hypertonicity and poor mobility, and you could fall like a child again :)


The scaling laws probably have something to say as well: twice the size means 8 times the mass, so adults are, on average, more delicate than children. There might be a similar undiscovered principle for cognitive function, but that's speculation on my part.

On the whole, though, I completely agree: there's a lot of ageism and resignation among adults about what is and is not within the abilities of the determined adult. Everything include language acquisition, learning to play musical instruments, mathematical creativity, and making scientific discoveries.

As a person transitioning into "unambiguous adulthood", but with plenty of youth left (I am only 30, for reference, and as creative as I ever was), this is super frustrating.


A squirrel will always be more agile than an elephant.

Same goes for a small human vs big human.


Adults fall farther to the ground than children do. I bet that has a great deal to do with it.

I vaguely wonder if this strand of assumptions - that adults just can't learn things quickly - had its roots in debunked myths from 50s and 60s. You know the ones: brain cells don't regenerate, etc.

I think it has more to do with old people being more stubborn. I've noticed that often it's not that they're unable to learn things, but rather they're unwilling to learn.

And rather than admit that you won't put the time in to practice a skill, its much easier to say that its "not for you" or "I'm too old to learn this", etc.

The stubbornness of little children is a different type than stubbornness of old people.

You think old people are more stubborn than little children?

Dealing with both regularly, that matches my experience.

But that may be because of a nonrepresentative sample on one or both sides of the comparison.


"You can't teach an old dog new tricks" is at least 300 years old.

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/you_can%27t_teach_an_old_dog_...


There is something special about language though. Existing language can be a barrier in learning new language, especially pronunciation. It is well known that some people just cannot perceive certain syllables (therefor also cannot produce those syllables) because of the language they already known. So there is something special about kids learning a language.

I think you just need the right teacher. It's true that some people (such as myself) can perceive and imitate a large variety of sounds and therefore 'sound native' in any language (which isn't actually indicative of true language ability in my opinion - one might just know a single phrase), but for the people who can't do this, you just need the right teacher, someone who will take the time to drill with you over and over and also provide the right type of instruction for the student (such as curriculum learning to move towards producing difficult sounds).

What may be special about kids learning a language (or anything, really), is that they have no preconception of a 'correct' way to do things, including how to move their tongues.

That being said, I can't whistle to this day.


I'm not buying that explanation. Hearing, just like seeing, is something that you need to practice. If it's the first time you're hearing a specific sound then you might not notice the intricate details in it. If you stick around those sounds for long enough then you'll hear the details as well.

When I was younger I knew a girl whose voice I did not understand when I first met her. It took me some time before I was able to understand what she was saying, because I hadn't heard a voice like that before. Based on that event, I think that the reason people can't hear the specific details of pronunciation is because they're not used to it, but they can learn with more experience.


Agreed. Create audio samples of all relevant phonemes and listen to them 10x per day for a week or two. That should be enough to discriminate them -- or I'll eat my hat.

'Course it would then take further training to be actually able to speak them.


I listened to someone trying to mimic the vowel sound in another language and fail totally.

Then they got vowel exactly correct by mimicking in English one of the English language accents!

The various different English accents cover a huge variety of vowel sounds, and quite a lot of consonant sounds.


trampoline might be the bad example because there is some physics involved and smaller shorter bodies are easier to move while they bounce. Children can literally do backflips easier the same way that if they took a fall they wouldn't get hurt nearly as much.

Backflips are a bad example, though. Adults are heavier and more prone to injuries, our reflexes are slower and we tend to worry about other things and not fully devote to learning something.

A better example would be learning to cook or doing a Rubik cube.


The optimism in this thread is nice, but where are the success stories which would support your hypothesis?

To overturn "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" proverb you need to show that a 30 year old can achieve similar level of mastery in 5 years of intensive study/deliberate practice as a 10 year old.

You are not going to become an olympic gymnast if you start practicing backflips at 30.

Take 100 kids and immerse them in a language at 10 and they all will be fluent by 15.

Take 100 30 year olds and not all of them will be fluent by 35. I know of many such examples, adults living in foreign countries in total immersion, speaking the foreign language as their main language and still not passing for a native.

My hypothesis: You can get decent in many fields of learning as a 30 year old with dedication but not great.

The field near and dear to my heart - chess is just one of many fields where late greatness is lacking.

There are NO chess grandmasters who learned the game at 25. The few late starting outliers started in their late teens.

Talented kids become GMs at age 13-15 these days after 5-7 years of study.

In fact there are very few people reaching master level who start with tabula rasa at age 20+ and not for lack of trying.

Grandmaster is not an super exclusive title: there are 1600+ of them in the world.

My hypothesis is that reaching the innate mastery in many fields requires a crucial effort in your teen years.

So far I can't find many late starters.

One such outlier Joseph Conrad started writing in English in his mid 20s.

Still he did learn English earlier than that. Per wikipedia - "Shakespeare brought him into the orbit of English literature." and that was at an age of 10 or so


I learned Japanese to fluency from zero starting at age 26. I don't know if these qualify as "greatness" but I have read books in Japanese, headed meetings in Japanese, written blog posts in Japanese, presented in Japanese. I even have occasional dreams in Japanese.

I think the "learn early" meme is spread by people who do not have the time/energy to put into late life learning, but who are happier feeling that even if they did, it would be impossible anyway. It's a defeatist attitude, but I suppose it must be comforting. I personally can't stand it though.


Your is a good positive example of starting relatively late and achieving proficiency by immersion and hard study.

However, I know of counter examples of hard working friends who are totally immersed in the foreign language and working in the foreign country and still nowhere near native levels.

Again my hypothesis is not that it is impossible to achieve proficiency in some skill at a later age, but that it is harder by some unknown factor.

Put 100 foreign kids age 12 in Japanese schools and they will all learn good Japanese by age 18. Plus they will pass for a native speaker.

Put 100 foreign adults aged 32 in a Japanese workplace and they will learn some Japanese by age 38. Most will not pass for a native speaker. Yes a few outliers will get good like you did.

I posit that the second group will have a much tougher time learning and will advance less than the first group.

The study in OP did nothing to overturn my hypothesis.

If you start learning English at age 18 you can achieve high level of reading comprehension at 28 but you will still have problems with accent (unless you can hire a specialized speech coach like Arnold did).


> Put 100 foreign kids age 12 in Japanese schools and they will all learn good Japanese by age 18. Plus they will pass for a native speaker.

Ummmm, I know people that moved to New Zealand younger than 12 that just don't sound native. Many people retain accent issues, although usually end up with a normal spread of proficiencies at grammar.


There are NO chess grandmasters who learned the game at 25. The few late starting outliers started in their late teens.

Talented kids become GMs at age 13-15 these days after 5-7 years of study.

I am not convinced by this argument. In many countries a sizeable proportion of the child population is encouraged to play chess, and very, very few of them become GMs (or any kind of master). The number of adults who pick up chess and pursue it ~fulltime is miniscule in comparison.


So the question is what is the ratio of kids picking up chess vs adults.

If ratio is 100:1 one would expect to see some strong adult starters emerging.

There are many people who pick up chess in adulthood and devote considerable time and get nowhere near master level.

Adults have more learning resources available to them but there is something in the rigidity of adult brain that prevents substantial progress.


I will not argue with physical fields (like gymnastics) However, the lack of chess GMs who started at 25 could be explained with very few 25 year olds attempting to become a GM starting at this age.

At this age, capable people are busy with their lives and I suspect overwhelmingly will not even attempt reaching grand mastery in chess.

To settle this scientifically we would need to find a group of 25 year olds who never practiced chess before and do 5-7 years of study (the same level of intensity that your 13yo grand masters perform).

I wouldn't be surprised if the set of such people is empty.

A thing we would need to control for is natural aptitude (perhaps IQ would be applicable here?). So we should take our 25 year olds and compare them to a group of kids with IQ in the same range who are going through similar study regimen.

Here, we may find that the 7 year olds who attempt and complete rigorous study chess are all mental prodigies to begin with and it will be even harder to find comparable 25 year old group.


I am not trying to be defeatist when I say that adults have a harder time acquiring new skills.

Maybe the factor is not that large as previously thought, but there is still a difficulty factor that increases as you get older.

EDIT: Well there goes my hope for HN supporting differing viewpoints. Pollyannaism is what one should support if one cares about karma.

I welcome multiple downvotes without explanation on where my hypothesis fails.

The OP (despite bias in promoting language learning schools as he is CEO of one) does not even disagree with me:

"Certainly on average the later learner seems to have a rarer time getting there, but is it impossible?

The data tells us that it’s not. On average less likely, certainly, but there are thousands of people who took this quiz, got a score in the range that a native speaker would, and started learning the language after the age of 20."

So it is possible but much harder/rarer.


> There are NO chess grandmasters who learned the game at 25. The few late starting outliers started in their late teens.

I think Chigorin is a good counterexample.

Quoting:

> Incidentally, Soltis mentions a few late-bloomers like Amos Byrne, who hardly played chess at all before age 38. Also, there is Chigorin, who started his tournament career at age 27, Then there's George Salwe, number 2 player in Poland in the early 20th century, who didn't start playing in major events until he was 42! English Master Joseph Henry Blake achieved his best result at age 63.

> Talented kids become GMs at age 13-15 these days after 5-7 years of study.

Uh, no, not even close.

Magnus Carlsen, arguably one of the best chess players ever, became a grandmaster at 13.

Hikaru Nakamura became the youngest American to get a grandmaster title at 15.

You have to be damn near a God of the game to be in the 13-15 year old GM category--not simply "talented".


Well it is all about how high one wants to set the bar.

Those examples are from 100+ years ago.

Chigorin is a promising counterexample but there are a few caveats.

He learned the moves at 16, late by modern standards and supposedly only got serious at 24.

We really do not know how much intensive/deliberate study he did ages 16-24. That is the big question. Same goes for Salwe.

So while Chigorin is a relatively late bloomer he still falls in the starting to play chess in his teens category.

I mostly concur with Polgar experiment with the addition that you have to start early.

If age was NOT a factor there should be very strong players who started late after age of 25 put in their hard 5-7 years and became at least an IM.

Disclaimer: I missed IM norm by 0.5 points so obviously I am biased.


If it’s any consolation, in this world of increasing nationalism it seems no one wants anything International.

Seriously though, I’m confident you’re exceptionally skilled to have come so close to that title. I’m unranked but can beat my friends and I would guess you could start without either rook and still make short work of me.


"You can't teach an old dog new tricks" because old dogs already know all the tricks.

Its more about what the bar is: you are talking about masters

And other people are looking for confirmation that proficiency is possible or that the differences are quite narrow

you want to prove the possibility of an extreme, and I want to prove that most adult just make excuses as the pseudoscience that says adults worse at learning is convenient for all cognitive circumstances


Adults won't get the same treatment like children.

If a non-native child lives in foreign language environment use wrong pronunciation/grammar, he would be corrected by friends and teachers. But adults won't get that feedback often.

Example, one of my colleague is non-native. He speak almost perfect pronunciation/grammar, yet he has some minor quirks time to time. I won't correct him because his language skill is more than adequate for the job and we are engineers, not the language teacher.

If I correct every minor quirks of him, he got a feedback, so in long term, his language will be improved further. But why do we have to do that when it has been more than enough already?

Another example, I'm not a English native. So my writing still contains grammatical errors. But as my language skills are improving, I rarely got a feedback these days for my writing become good enough.

Sometimes, I got a hint of feedback like : "Wow, I didn't notice that you are non-native.". People say that because they noticed unnatural writing of mine. I guess that's a polite way of saying "You failed."


I hope you don't find this too patronising, but I thought I'd offer you some feedback:

> Adults won't get the same treatment like children.

I'd render this as "Adults don't get the same treatment as children".

> He speak

Should be "He speaks"

> we are engineers, not the language teacher

This should probably be "not language teachers", but the whole phrase doesn't make a great deal of sense. I'd probably say "not copywriters".

> If I correct every minor quirks of him, he got a feedback

"If I corrected every minor quirk, he'd get feedback"

Generally "got a feedback" should always be "get feedback" - the tense of get was wrong, and feedback isn't countable, so it doesn't take an article.


Thanks. Articles and plurals are the last things for me to master since my native tongue, Japanese, doesn't have such concepts. It's not like I'm thinking in Japanese when I write English, But the native tongue still affect my thinking somehow.

Adults don't get the same treatment as children.

If a non-native child lives in a foreign language environment and uses the wrong pronunciation/grammar, they would be corrected by friends and teachers. But adults won't get that feedback often.

Example, one of my colleague is non-native. He speaks with almost perfect pronunciation/grammar, yet he has some minor quirks from time to time. I don't correct him because his language skills are more than adequate for the job and we are engineers, not language teachers.

Another example, I do not speak English natively, so my writing still contains grammatical errors. As my language skills improved, I stopped receiving feedback for my writing, it had become good enough.

Sometimes, I get a hint of feedback like: "Wow, I didn't notice that you are non-native.". People say that because they noticed my unnatural writing, I guess that's a polite way of saying "You failed".

Grammar is hard. My French is unreadable.


In the spirit of this thread...

If a child lives in X, he/they will Y. If a child lived in X, he/they would Y.


I guess that's a polite way of saying "You failed."

Honestly, most folks say that stuff as a compliment, and I'm honestly happy folks give honest feedback about what tips them off. Especially in the US, many folks can't imagine learning enough of a foreign language to work. Using awkward phrasing could be an indicator of being foreign, sure, but occasionally it is just some dude that writes awkwardly.


I learned Japanese as a 16 year old when I was a rotary student. I learned as a baby would, never had to unlearn poor pronunciation gathered in American schools since I only heard it in Japan, going there without knowing anything. Most people can't tell I'm not native on the phone.

But, I did find myself worried at that age about making mistakes, so I was hesitant to speak often and focused on the writing. I think that meant I lost opportunities to speak with people and accelerate my learning through rapid feedback.

When I was 25 I lived in Brazil. My Portuguese pronunciation is not as good as it turns out but at that point I didn't care about making mistakes. Now, I'm much more interested in attempting to communicate, even when I make mistakes.

I think each era in life has a different set of circumstances that can hold you back and help when learning languages.

I'm glad to see that it doesn't appear that we are at a cognitive disadvantage to learn later in life, since I love learning languages. I hope someday my family can live in Barcelona and we can all learn Catalan together.


I know reading Japanese isn't easy, but the pronunciation part is pretty regular and easy enough for an English speaker right? I don't think I've heard much Japanese that I just went "nope...could never say that" like I do with Russian, Mandarin, Finnish...etc.

Of course I'm just monolingual and don't know anything :)


There's actually a few significant barriers that don't block communication but make you sound weird. The biggest one is the pitch accent. Japanese accent rises and falls on two levels (high and low) and this changes the meaning of the word. Natives will usually figure out what you're saying but it's an important part of the language that English speakers struggle with.

Then there's also a few sounds that don't quite match normal English. "r" is more like a sound between "l" and "d". "f" is between "f" and "h". "t" tends to be a bit more of a solid sound than usual English. All in all as a current learner I've been surprised at how many hurdles there have been.


This is a big problem with a lot of Japanese language learning material written for English speakers. There seems to be this false notion that pitch accent is not important enough to teach Japanese learners, so it’s not learned until much later. As a result for a lot of people who are at the intermediate level, pitch accent is the main distinguishing factor between sounding native and sounding like a foreigner.

Definitely, Japanese pronunciation is pretty standard. There is intonation and as ShinTakuya mentioned some sounds which don't really exist in English (like the sound between f and h). But, it is pretty easy in general.

Having said that, it's amazing to hear people speak it with crazy accents where they clearly bring in their own understanding of how things should sound.


The pitch accent ShinTakuya mentioned is actually a huge part of why attaining a native-like Japanese accent is so hard. It's more than just individual words having an accent that can affect the meaning of the word.

There are rules for the pitch accent of conjugations of verbs and adjectives, rules for compound words, suffixes, prefixes and even a combined sentence level accent that changes depending on the accent of the word contained within that sentence.

And to wrap it up, there's exceptions to most of these rules. Not to mention that names of places and people have their own accent that, while one can gain an intuition for over time, are still something to be aware of.

Edit: There's also the fact that English doesn't have a pitch accent system, so it's harder for English speakers to acquire an unconscious understanding and production of the correct pitch accent than it would be for someone whose first language is Chinese. While Chinese's tones aren't as complicated as Japanese's pitch accent, the fact that Chinese speakers have to pay attention to the relative pitch of a phoneme gives them an advantage when listening to words in Japanese as they will be unconsciously aware that the pitch of a word is important and most likely reproduce it correctly without conscious effort.


> But, I did find myself worried at that age about making mistakes, so I was hesitant to speak often

I think this is a hard barrier to get over, and something I continue to struggle with. I moved to Finland and I understand a hell of a lot of conversation in front of me - words I don't know I skip, but context usually helps.

When it comes to speaking though getting going is really hard, it isn't helped when people open conversations in English - I guess I look foreign - or I have to confess I don't fully understand when they're asking questions.

Still making mistakes is a part of the learning process, and it feels like I learn (niche) words every day.


Correct pitch accent and intonation is quite hard to acquire. Congratulations, no small feat.

I always wondered if the difference relied in some inherent neural difference that came with age, or how we approached learning languages.

I picked up 3, and then added a 4th language by accident (parents needed a secret language for adult conversations. To their horror, one day I started speaking to them in that language...), but I learned none of them. Hard not to pick up a language when you are immersed by it, and you don't see kids running around with language books, but rather getting actively taught and spoken to in a specific language.

But immersion can be harder as an adult too. People might not be as patient with you, and especially if you know English, people will just switch to it on the first hint of a struggle, making immersion hard to attain.

But this article doesn't clarify that.


> I picked up 3, and then added a 4th language by accident (parents needed a secret language for adult conversations. To their horror, one day I started speaking to them in that language...)

Wait, you can’t leave us hanging. Please tell us more about this or point us to a blog or something. I love that story.


No blog unfortunately, but I remember when I let it slip - I corrected them about something they were saying about a family member, in Russian. Though, Russian was all around us, so you would even get to use it at shops, at school, etc. No longer taught as a language, because English aligned better with the country's priorities for the future, but still pervasive.

A year or so after, Harry Potter wasn't out in my native language, so I switched to the Russian copy, and I was able to read fairly comfortably. The joys of immersion :)


> especially if you know English, people will just switch to it on the first hint of a struggle, making immersion hard to attain.

Maybe in Europe. I had someone switch to English on me and shortly afterward ask permission to switch back, having gotten tired out. It's more common not to switch at all.

The worst case was a guy working for an apartment rental company who got fed up with texting and just called me. I can text. I can't speak.


> People might not be as patient with you, and especially if you know English, people will just switch to it on the first hint of a struggle, making immersion hard to attain.

Just go places in the world where people don't speak English, then that fall-back option doesn't exist.

I learned French quickly while driving through West Africa!


But those places are less in some places than others. I'm in Norway. I live here, and it isn't like I can just go to another place that speaks Norwegian. Children start learning English at age 6. Most adult English-language television has subtitles instead of dubbed: Console games are in English most times. Advertisements have a mix of english and Norwegian.

People are quick to use English. Very quick.

The main portion of the population that doesn't do so well with English are older folks, in my mother's age group or older. I also have a very good chance that the person I'm speaking to can understand english even if their speaking skills aren't the best.

Immersion simply doesn't happen the same here.


I suspect, but cannot prove, that if an adult who already speaks one language then replicated the child language-learning process by spending a decade utterly immersed in that new language, surrounded by people who wanted very much to communicate with that adult, and were willing to spend 16 hours a day in that adult's company talking to that adult and trying to communicate...

Well, I'd expect that adult to be fluent a lot faster than children manage, and to demonstrate language-learning efforts significantly better than children seem to do. Adults who already speak a language fluently should in many ways be better at learning a language than a child.


Exactly. People seem amazed at how fast children pick up language but seem to ignore the fact most kids can’t speak fluently until they are 5+ years old and they spend a lot of time with poor pronunciation and grammar.

I would assume an adult who is dedicated to learning a language could get to the same level in 5 years with enough motivation.


A counterexample to this claim is the experience of families moving internationally. It's always the children who pick up the local language faster.

I disagree that that is a counter-example, but my disagreement is based entirely on supposition.

I would hazard that in those cases, the adults still operate in their own languages as much as they can. The children spend many hours a day in situations where they cannot do so, or where the consequences of language inability are not short-term catastrophic. Schooling, for example. I suspect that in those situations, the adults find ways to continue to operate in their own language, out of necessity; they don't have the luxury of spending several hours a day fumbling their way through basic grammar. Those adults need to work, so they will work where they can continue to use their own language, or at least get by with hand-signals and a hundred words. Often, people moving internationally group together with other immigrants, continuing to operate in their own language and culture. They simply avoid learning.


As an immigrant, that's very accurate. Also for adults no one wants to speak with you for a long time if you aren't already proficient at least on B2 level. It's a visible nuisance for native speakers. Thus adults aren't really immersed. Most of my (and over immigrant) language knowledge is very transactional and limit to shopping and my direct work duties. Surely there are exceptions - some are nearly native level proficient, overs are barely can express basic needs.

From what I keep hearing from other people transitioning between language contexts, that second sentence is what seems to make this the most asymmetrical—put another way, the environment refuses to immerse you as an adult in the same way a child would learn. You won't get the same inputs, you won't get the same idioms; you might get more of a sanitized or limited version.

This is something that I think happens not just with language, but with other traits—personality, skills, etc. A lot of these things can be more mutable than “expected” purely based on what a “self” can withstand, but the expectation itself causes friction and inertia from both directions: the person has to adjust their self-expectations, but also the social environment has to add energy and information to make those changes happen in a way that's integrated with the world. For anything that isn't adequately compartmentalized, sometimes there is no effective framework available; if the people around you already think they know you, either by broad categorization or by previous experience, you have an uphill battle. Children are more socially recognized as mutable, so both adults and child peers are more likely to put in the energy, and they're also placed in roles where experimentation is safe.


Definitely true, again adult interactions are transactional - why bother with idioms, better downgrade to simplified version which can be surely understood. As for kids that true on any language, we known and expect that kids language subset more narrow than adult's that's why we repeat the same phrase multiple times with different wording.

Good job on your English! In this post, you use the word 'overs' twice, where I think you meant 'others'.

Hope that helps :-)


>Often, people moving internationally group together with other immigrants, continuing to operate in their own language and culture. They simply avoid learning.

This certainly does happen. But equally, the adults are often making a much greater conscious effort to learn the local language than the children are, and yet are almost always less successful.

I doubt that it is universally the case that the adults are "less immersed" than the children, but it does seem to be almost universally the case that the children acquire the language faster.


I cannot disagree with that; what I would suggest is that if the adults spent as much time as the children immersed in the language and the necessity of speaking it, I suspect they would do as well if not better.

A few hours a week fumbling with a basic grammar guide is certainly better than a few hours a week immersed and desperate to communicate, but fifty hours a week immersed and desperate to communicate is what the children get and that will always do better than a few conscious hours a week with a basic grammar.

When I say "immersed", I don't just mean "surrounded". I mean it's coming at you, deliberately, and it's your only option for communication that you are desperate to engage in, mind spinning and whirring, latching onto constructs and experimenting with them, every human social fibre in your being that demands you communicate and connect with the people around you (and that is a very strong part of being human) driving the desperate urge to learn the fucking language, on the order of 10 to 16 hours a day.


I get that. I just don’t see any reason to suppose that the children are almost always more immersed than the adults in this sense. There are plenty of scenarios where the adults will have a more urgent need of that sort than the children. For example, my husband moved with his family to the Czech Republic as a teenager where he want to a French language school. His father worked as a diplomat. My husband still learned more Czech than either of his parents.

Well, what can I say? Perhaps your husband is some kind of language learning genius. Perhaps your husand's diplomat father was not so skilled at learning the language of the very nation he was working in. Your husband spent his workdays in school speaking French, his father spent his work days in an embassy speaking probably at least two and maybe more languages. Neither of them immersed.

I suspect, however, that for a typical immigrant, the child does not spend their days in a school taught in a non-local language, but instead simply goes to the local school, and I suspect that for a typical immigrant, the adult does not work in a building whose working language is their own native tongue. Your (husband's) experiences are somewhat offbeat.


I'm not making a claim about the typical experience, I'm saying that it's a near-universal that the children acquire the language faster. To me, that suggests that immersion is unlikely to be the main factor. Even if children are typically more immersed, I doubt this is the case anywhere near as often as it's the case that the children do it faster.

Your position is in accord with the prevailing scientific view on language acquisition. It's unfortunate that HN seems to be less than receptive, considering HN is supposed to be about intellectual curiosity.

Right, but this doesn’t necessarily negate the point as the adults are not immersed to the sane degree as the children. Speaking to each other in their native language. Reading and watching media in their native language etcetera.

I'm not sure why the adults would be "less immersed" in general.

I think adults tend to naturally use past knowledge and experiences to build family comfort zones to preserve native culture. They can stay in touch with past or culturally compatible relationships from native environment (digital nimads).

Kids naturally are still developing their worldview and learning how to make relationships thus new culture and language is just an another step in that process.


I would hazard they deliberately seek out situations in which they can continue to use their native tongue, in which they are already fluent; particulary in terms of employment and social activities.

betaby above, an immigrant, suggests this to be the case.


Language learning is often frustrating. Adults generally have resources, and can use those resources to avoid exposure. Kids don't, and are forced to learn language to accomplish anything at all.

Because if they're hired for a job despite not knowing a language, that language obviously isn't essential to the job, and they won't be expected to use it.

Typically because the school they go to is in the local language, and they're motivated to make friends with kids who speak the local language. Often international business is done in English, so there's less incentive to learn.

A counter example to this counter example is the children of diplomats and stationed secret service bodyguards, some of whom I know. The parents pick up the language faster, with greater fluency and less accent.

Your suspicion is essentially that the critical period hypothesis is false. Linguists have been examining this confounding hypothesis for decades. As usual, most of the research is paywalled, but here's [1] a decent summary of some of the research and evidence as of 1999.

[1] https://web.stanford.edu/~hakuta/www/research/publications/(...


I used to meet with an endless stream of immigrants, legal and not. One thing I noticed was that the ones who used the equivalent of “Immersion“ learning (that is, they simply did not associate with people who spoke your own language) were by far The most positions learners. I witnessed a few people from Poland end up with almost no Polish accent, even though they came to the USA in middle age.

A few years later, I ended up dating a Polish woman who did not know English. I learned become close to conversational within a few weeks, because (sorry, but it is relevant to the story) she was gorgeous.

It turned out that the oldest of motivations proved surprisingly effective for me.


In college, my professor of Japanese, who was a woman, claimed that there was a slang for American (expat) men along the lines of 'screaming homosexuals,' because they (a) spoke loudly and (b) learned the language from their girlfriends and picked up gender-specific grammar and speech patterns in the process.

I did not end up learning Japanese in college as a young man. I've had much better luck twenty years later, indirectly following her advice, by learning Greek through falling in love.


This is true in Mandarin too, to some extent. A bunch of my casual speech patterns come from talking to my wife and I've had Chinese friends say, "You are talking like a girl." I am always happy to hear them say it because (a) if nobody tells me, I'm probably never going to figure it out on my own, and (b) "You are talking like a (Chinese) girl" is a compliment compared to, "You are talking like a foreigner."

You might be mispronouncing the alveolo-palatal consonants (Pinyin j, q, x) as denti-alveolars (Pinyin z, c, s), which is common among foreigners whose native languages lack alveolo-palatals, since it's hard to figure out how to correctly curl your tongue without an explicit description.

The reason that would make your speech appear feminine is that some young Beijing women pronounce those consonants similarly, probably in a (potentially unconscious) attempt to sound cute. The closest analog in English I can think of is swapping word-initial l for w ("wuv", "widdle").

The phenomenon in Chinese is known as 女国音; I became aware of it through the talk page of the Wikipedia article on Standard Chinese phonology: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Standard_Chinese_phonolog...


It's worth noting that Japanese (like many Asian languages) has a certain degree of "sexual dimorphism" unlike western languages.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_differences_in_spoken_J...

Interestingly, it also has pitch as a part of accent:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_pitch_accent


That's pretty funny. Similarly in Thailand, the Thai language has gender-specific pronouns and speech patterns. LGBT people are very out in Thailand and many LGBT foreigners attracted to the country as a result. So when a foreigner who may have learned some Thai language from their Thai girlfriend/boyfriend uses trans-gender pronouns or speech patterns nobody bats an eye and just assumes they are trans, even though they may not be.

I’m Brazilian but I’ve had people think I’m American since I’ve lost most of my accent. It’s funny though that when I’m tired my accent shows up.

I do the immersion thing without even calling it so. My view is that if I’m living in another country, I should integrate and learn the culture. I stopped associating with Brazilians who were only interested in staying within a Brazilian bubble doing Brazilian things. Might as well just go back to Brazil if that’s what you want to do.


Just wanted to echo this. Moved from Russia to Atlanta, and did not go out of my way to do the whole immigrant community thing (unlike what a lot of my parents and their friends did). 9 years later, living on West Coast now, and I definitely attribute my proficiency in English to not joining the Russian expat community. Meanwhile, there are people I personally know who were BORN in the US in one of those communities, and they barely speak more than just the very basics, despite their community not being an isolated one at all.

P.S. still have an accent, but it has been getting much better, and almost no one manages to guess where it comes from correctly. Heavy majority of the guesses go in the direction of Scandinavian countries :)


> Meanwhile, there are people I personally know who were BORN in the US in one of those communities, and they barely speak more than just the very basics, despite their community not being an isolated one at all.

Really? Outside of communities that educate their children in their own language second generation children everywhere generally end up fluent speakers of the language of instruction, even in communities where their home language speakers are a plurality or majority of a school population. You do see Indian and Chinese kids in Silicon Valley with accents intermediate between FOB and more general Californian but they speak English perfectly.


Yes, really. I grew up in a Mexican neighborhood and can give you the names of people whose families have been here for generations and barely speak any English. Same with the Russian communities in Chicago and Long Island.

I have the exact same experience, though I starting learning English at a young age. Out of the 100+ Brazilians I met in Business School, I was the only one who was interested in hanging out with non-Brazilians.

There's a reason I left Brazil, and it mostly has to do with wanting to live in a better culture.


> There's a reason I left Brazil, and it mostly has to do with wanting to live in a better culture.

Same. Plus the insane violence.


My grandmother is from Rhode Island, which has a very distinctive accent; she put a lot of effort into getting rid of it and I could always tell as a kid when she was mad because her accent snuck back in.

Don't know if this is common, but when I'm tired my accent sort of turns British. Seems North American accent requires more effort.

Yeah, the rhotic thing is the first thing that goes when I get tired. I fall back to rolling my r's though, instead of making them soft like in British English.

"I’m Brazilian but I’ve had people think I’m American"

I am German and I often get asked if I am Irish :-)


I get that. But isn't this some kind of reverse bias ? What if a genuinely good Brazilian wants to be your friend ? You're precluding them based on their nationality.

"Brazilians who were only interested in staying within a Brazilian bubble doing Brazilian things."

I don't think he treats random brazilian differently, just that he isn't seeking a brazilian community.


Why apologize for admitting the woman was gorgeous, as if it was improper? :) If anything, not acknowledging someone is gorgeous - when one actually is - should be improper. Beauty matters - always did, always will. Instead of pretending it doesn't, let's celebrate it!

I wonder if that is why Americans have so much trouble. It is really hard to immerse yourself when everyone speaks (or tries to speak) English.

I went to South Korea for a business meeting and spent 6 months prior trying to learn Korean. Funny thing is that when I got there everyone I met wanted to take the opportunity to speak English with a native speaker and I rarely got to use it. Good thing too... I would have sounded like I have the literacy of a small child.


My sister lived in a medium-sized city in the Netherlands for several years and tried hard to learn Dutch, and found it super frustrating. I saw this myself when I visited her there. She would start off speaking Dutch with someone and they'd respond in Dutch until the moment she made even the slightest most insignificant mistake in her speech, at which point they would invariably switch to English and refuse to speak another syllable of Dutch to her.

Living in Korea as a male native English speaker I found the best practice I usually had was with Older women and young women who were too embarrassed about their English skills to even try.

In my anecdotal experience, Polish people are especially gifted at picking up languages. I know several Polish people from different contexts that acquired a very good level of Spanish in a ridiculous amount of time, even some that picked it up from TV without any formal education and could speak with me just fine.

I think it may have to do with their language having a quite large inventory of phonemes (I have the feeling that learning new phonemes is one of the main factors in making a new language difficult to learn), but who knows.


Actually, I, as a native Polish speaker have a hard time learning English pronunciation because the phonems are much different from the ones I am used to. Languages like Spanish and Italian are much easier for us, because all the basic sounds are quite similar, no challenge here. Also, Polish have pretty rich grammar, with all those declension and conjugation rules that are also present in Spanish. It makes it easier to learn the language because at least you have a firm grasp of the concept, even if the details (like the actual suffixes used) are different.

In French I believe that this is known as the “école horizontale”.

My, what an unfortunate educational domain name then https://www.horizontaleducation.com

How did you evaluate your "close to conversational"? Polish is notoriously hard to learn. You might have been intelligible due to intimacy but not to a random fluent speaker.

I realized it when I was speaking in another language without knowing it, and when her friends started talking to me in Polish instead of English.

> I witnessed a few people from Poland end up with almost no Polish accent, even though they came to the USA in middle age.

I presume you mean they spoke no English before they moved to the USA. I recently read Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct, which left me with the impression that what you describe is impossible, and that adults are never able to learn a language to 'native' proficiency. This article seems to refute that.


The Language Instinct is a 'weak' book. There is a plenty of criticism for arguments against universal grammar (the idea behind the book).

The language instinct is bogus, refuted by multiple recent articles. Sorry you’ll have to undo learning a bunch of false info from it :(

I'm not sure it's that cut and dry, nor that any learning needs to be "undone". The study itself (referenced in this article) is co-authored by Pinker, and these ideas take time and research to develop.

There was never any evidence to support the critical period theory. It was poor statistics from the very beginning.

The authors of the study under discussion explicitly claim (in the abstract even) that "the results support the existence of a sharply-defined critical period for language acquisition." You should address that argument (or cite the other "recent articles" that refute it), rather than simply dismissing it as poor statistics.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3723803/

http://www.asian-efl-journal.com/March_2002_EBook_editions.p...

^ Basically the above study, sponsored by the NIH, found that when you correct for all relevant factors the critical period signal not only disappears but becomes anti-correlated: kids have a HARDER time in all aspects of language learning than adults, when the same level of interest and effort is applied.


So we've not only confirmed that children have an advantage, but we've identified the nature of the advantage: it's easier for them to muster both interest and effort, to the extent that this outweighs the disadvantages they have outside of those areas.

Yeah but there’s nothing physiological or neurological there, which is what the critical period hypothesis is predicting. It’s just the reality of childhood in an immersion environment.

> Yeah but there’s nothing physiological or neurological there

That's, IMO, an unwarranted (and, taken strictly, almost implausible) assumption. (Especially on the interest side.)


I personally saw a person in their 50's to learn English to fluency with no accent. It is possible.

The US government says it takes 1100 hours (44 weeks) to learn Polish:

https://www.state.gov/m/fsi/sls/c78549.htm

What methods did you use to shave off ~40 weeks that are required for normal people to learn the language ?


> What methods did you use to shave off ~40 weeks

That seems slightly presumptuous and sounds slightly accusatory... It’s not like it takes 44 weeks before you can say a single word in another language. The comment said “conversational”, and the page you linked said “professional working proficiency”. Is it surprising at all if those are two completely different criteria? This is data for their own course, which is based on class hours, not on full-immersion living with a native speaker. The top of the page also stresses the words “usually” and “average”, and goes out of the way to make clear that it can vary wildly.

Try any of the decent language learning audio courses and you’ll see it’s not hard to have basic conversations in a matter of weeks. I’ve used Pimsleur for several languages. I wouldn’t call myself proficient or even conversational, but it’s been enough to communicate abroad and occasionally impress a native speaker.


That’s for state department level professional proficiency. I wouldn’t be surprised if most Americans aren’t at that level for English.

Conversational < Fluent < Fluent & Literate

There’s no magic threshold where you’ve “learned” the language, simply different points at which you are able to express yourself more accurately and in greater detail and keep up with the conversation.


The problem is "conversational" means anything from "hello", "how are you", "my name is", "the horse is on the window" [%] to an actual conversation that can convey something useful.

Between a reasonable degree of grammar correctness, some vocabulary, and the pronunciation needed to make yourself understood it takes some time to carry out any conversation beyond tourist level.

Given that I have plenty of polish friends and contact with the language the "few weeks" is either an exaggeration or, more likely, the bar for "close to conversational" is set relatively low and differs from other people's definition leading to this discussion. Unless it's someone who already speaks a language that's "close enough", maybe czech?

[%] Actual example used by my french teacher a few decades ago.


> "the horse is on the window"

Obligatory Eddie Izzard: Learning French [1]

[1] https://youtu.be/x1sQkEfAdfY


You're right, my french teacher was using "the chair is on the window", my brain mixed Eddie Izzard into it :D.

Yep. Carefully avoided the word fluent, which was never in question!

By literally walking around with two language books all the time and looking up every single word or phrase before I used it. By having a smoking hot girlfriend. By consciously trying to pronounce every word in perfect BBC Polish.

I'm surprised that list puts French in category 1, and German in category 2. Would have expected it to be the other way around.

In my experiences, learning French well is more difficult than people think, German not as much.


Spelling aside French isn’t really more difficult than Spanish. Neither language is terribly difficult when you compare it to Hebrew, Arabic, Russian or Japanese but German grammar is definitely more complex than French and that’s where most of the difficulty is in Category 1 and 2 languages, not the phoneme inventory or vocabulary, with their masses of cognates with English.

Due to the Norman conquest of England in 1066 there's a good chunk of vocabulary overlap, particularly for the more formal and technical words likely to be used in State Department contexts.

Given his insinuations, it seems like a strong infatuation helped as a motivator

More likely its bullshit or the poster just didn't have a good view of his own skills.

Quite possible -- was just pointing out what the poster had claimed was a differentiating factor, as requested

Aquisition/immersion learning is rapid. Thegovernment metrics are likely based on academic learning methods.

Forget the books and turn on the radio and TV instead.


it really depends on what languages you already know, but i think you need to use both, and not starting with a book would probably be the most inefficient way to learn a new language.

if you already know spanish or italian, learning french is a lot easier because a lot of the verbs are the same and conjugations follow the same patterns

i know english, italian, a decent amount of french now, and if I am trying to learn arabic, starting with just radio and tv seems backwards to me


I've long suspected this to be the case. For context, my parents were immigrants to Scandinavia from southeast Asia. I'm an immigrant to two other European countries.

My parents know all the restaurant related stuff. Food, money, business, smalltalk. Unsurprisingly.

They have an accent as well. I guess that's because at some point people stop being corrected on the exact sound they are making.

Now I happen to be taking mandarin lessons at the moment. My teacher is very particular about the exact shape your mouth and tongue should be making. She's the first language teacher I've had who's done that.

Likewise with other language learning issues. When you're an adult, nobody corrects your grammar once it's good enough to be understood. Or worse, they just use you to practice English.

Also there are great examples of late learners. The three Danish Princesses, Alexandra, Mary and Marie, from Australia, HK, and France. They all went on intensive courses in Danish which is a weird, weird language. They're pretty good at it.

Also I came across a French guy who sang in perfect Vietnamese on TV once. Don't recall the name.

Aside from that I've heard stories about diplomats who've gotten quite good.


I can really appreciate your point "When you're an adult, nobody corrects your grammar once it's good enough to be understood." It's true. I speak near-fluent Russian as a second language, but it's hard for me to get better because people are too polite to correct my mistakes. If my idea clear, people don't want to appear impolite.

I can't be too critical: I do the same thing when people speak broken English to me. If the idea they want to express is clear, it seems improper to correct them.


My rule of thumb: if I hear a mistake once, I let it pass (maybe it was just a one-off mistake instead of a misconception). If it hear it twice, I offer the correction kindly. All such interactions have been met with gratitude.

This is such a good rule. The biggest things I learned from this thread:

- Stop worrying about how I sound to other people, make as many mistakes as possible to receive feedback

- Stop being over-polite by not correcting others, this is how they get their feedback


>If my idea clear, //

Did you do that on purpose? "[M]y idea is clear" is better, but still not great, not UK native at least. But then you said "if the idea they want to express is clear" later, which is perfect; so just switch "they" <-> "I" and you have a better phrase.


I chuckled at that one, because that is the most common mistake I used to make when I was learning English, because Russian doesn't have articles

Maybe it was a typo?

Yeah, it was a typo on my part. I wanted to say something like, "If my idea was clear..."

May I ask from where in Siberia you're from (reading between the lines of your username). I studied for some time in Novosibirsk, absolutely loved it :)

> My teacher is very particular about the exact shape your mouth and tongue should be making. She's the first language teacher I've had who's done that.

Isn't that mainly because you're learning Mandarin where tone actually matters? In English you can pronounce can ad anything between "can" "ken" "keen" and a few others depending where you're from. I don't believe that's still valid in Chinese.


The shape of your mouth and tongue position isn't really about tones. It's more that Mandarin has a bunch of sounds that aren't used in English. It's difficult to even hear them at first. For example, x versus sh, j versus zh, or ü versus u.

This is technically true but in real life people mispronounce tones all the time and get understood fine. Mandarin songs have no tonal distinctions at all and nobody has problems understanding them. Getting tone right is super important if you want to be extremely terse (as is traditional) but you can get away with a lot of tone mistakes if you add context. (I'm also learning Mandarin at the moment, as my fifth language)

You are describing different vowels and not tones. Different vowels are pronounced by changing the shape of the mouth; tones are produced by the laryngeal muscles, like when you hum a tune.

That's cool, thanks. I learned something.

> They're pretty good at it

One is, and became so with surprising speed back when (but - nitpick - is no longer a princess). Another really isn't, not in any deep and idiomatic way, considering years spent and ressources at her disposal. But then, her very much native born husbond prince can barely master a full coherent sentence in his mother tongue.

Actually, few non-natives ever become truly fluent in spoken Danish. It is not so much a weird language as it is a mumbled one - to the extent that many Danes, especially the younger generations, have real trouble with written language, always confusing conjugations which ought to sound different but in contemporary speech don't. Compare Norwegian and Swedish, languages very closely related to Danish, but with far clearer speech habits.


> But then, her very much native born husbond prince can barely master a full coherent sentence in his mother tongue.

Aren't they both fluent in Danish and French?

> Actually, few non-natives ever become truly fluent in spoken Danish

I don't know, I suspect this is because there's so many weird sounds that aren't really explained in a course. I find if you look up a linguistic explanation of the language you see a lot of things that a language teacher wouldn't give you. But of course that's not the same as practicing.


I heard a Russian diplomat speak Swedish once. It was both flattering and a little scary. Pitch perfect.

Maybe it should be scary. From the anecdotes I heard KGB had very good language schools. I have no idea how credible that is.

> They have an accent as well. I guess that's because at some point people stop being corrected on the exact sound they are making.

> Likewise with other language learning issues. When you're an adult, nobody corrects your grammar once it's good enough to be understood.

While it is true that nobody corrects adults, nobody corrects children either. Children just put in a lot more practice than most adults.


It's not really true that nobody corrects children though.

"I wanna banama." "Oh, you want a banana? Here you go..."

This kind of interaction is very typical of parents speaking to their children, and it is immensely helpful in language learning. Overdoing correction, as offered in a classroom, on the other hand, is not helpful:

"I go to cinema tomorrow." "No, I'm afraid you can't say 'to cinema' like that. Please open your grammar textbook and let us revisit the rule for article usage again..."


I have always been under the impression that the only reason children learn languages faster than adults is because they don’t worry so much about how they would be perceived if they said the wrong thing, pronounced something wrongly etc. The adults egos hinders theme

In fact, I always thought adults would learn languages quicker than children if they where given the exact same circumstances because of their greater knowledge.


>I have always been under the impression that the only reason children learn languages faster than adults is because they don’t worry so much about how they would be perceived if they said the wrong thing, pronounced something wrongly etc.

To piggyback on this, as someone learning a language as an adult, one thing that frustrated me the most was the inverse of the phenomenon you described - adults trying to be too polite and not correcting me when I made some mistakes, as long as they could understand what I meant. As soon as I had made close friends and made it explicitly clear to them, that I would really appreciate them pointing out my mistakes, that's when my biggest learning leaps occurred.


This. The more polite/reserved the culture the harder it is to learn by example.

Do children learn languages quicker?

Obviously they learn their native language quick because of full immersion plus playing and talking is pretty much the only thing they have to do. For other languages, if they spend say 3 hours a week learning another language they'd probably be at the same level as an adult spending the same amount of time. And things like curiosity, feeling of relevancy etc. are going to be a bigger factor in speed of learning I reckon.


My kids at certain age (between 2-4 yo) picked up a lot of Spanish by simply watching youtube videos for 1-2 hours a day (their fav. cartoon at the time Pocoyo was in Spanish). Compared to my learning efforts it was definitely going much easier for them, especially since it was completely unstructured learning for them, they had to figure out the meaning based just on the visual context. They've also learned a lot of Italian at the same time by simply listening to my wife's family talk between themselves (I listened them too, but my Italian still sucks). Problem is that they also forget most of it very quickly around 5 y/o (I guess it matches the period of infantile amnesia) unless they're exposed to the language regularly. So now they still understand Italian very good, but as they've lost interest in that cartoon they've quickly forgot most of their Spanish vocabulary.

When I first started learning French, I watched videos intended for French kids and I picked up a lot quickly. The biggest problem for me was, unlike a kid, I couldn't stand to watch them for very long. As an adult, boredom set in pretty quickly and thus loss of focus. However, it was still very useful until I got to a level where I could understand more adult content. It was certainly more useful than most traditional language learning materials.

> because they don’t worry so much about how they would be perceived

You can make the argument that this is the difference between being an adult and someone who is still a child.

That being said, it is not a black and white line, depending on the context many adults can act like children and many children can act like adults.


I moved with my family from Romania to Germany 3 years ago. My kids now speak German fluently. They speak it to each other and Romanian to us. Their Romanian grammar is starting to deteriorate and they are using German rules and mot-a-mot translations when speaking Romanian. Myself on the other hand, can barely speak any German. I understand quite a bit, but I don't have the confidence to speak it. My kids had to speak German at school and KG and they didn't care about making mistakes. I could use English anywhere, actually at my workplace English is the official language. And if I am not convinced that what I am going to say is correct, I just switch to English. I learned English in my early teens (10-15) by watching cartoons, HBO, and the Discovery Channel without subtitles, and by playing videogames and using the computer in a time when Romanian was not available as an interface language. Today pretty much every operating system and app is available in Romanian, but I still use them in English. They just sound / look weird otherwise.

> Today pretty much every operating system and app is available in Romanian, but I still use them in English. They just sound / look weird otherwise.

A native German speaker once told me the same thing. For example, the word for “File” is properly translated and is perfectly understandable to German speakers, but it looks unnatural. He and many peers his age never used computers or phones in German because being computer literate was synonymous with being English literate. Many of the localization features we have now in modern operating systems didn’t exist until five or ten years ago.


I can only attest to anecdote but both my mother and wife switched in adulthood to a primary language that they had not previously known, and became utterly fluent (larger than normal vocabulary, both written and spoken). One adopted the local accent, the other never did.

I learned German informally (by speaking it continuously at home with said wife) as an adult and am typically considered fluent BUT: A> accent is atrocious and B> any fluency is rich and deep within a few domains; outside those domains I flounder like an experienced beginner (which is what I consider myself).

There are varying degrees of "fluency" but I certainly know plenty of people whom I would consider fluent in a language they learned as an adult. Articles that claim that it's impossible have always puzzled me.


any fluency is rich and deep within a few domains; outside those domains I flounder like an experienced beginner (which is what I consider myself).

It probably wouldn't be unreasonable to think of many native speakers of English in similar terms with regards to English fluency.

There is so much knowledge out there now that you basically can no longer be a Renaissance Man. We all know a lot about some things and next to nothing about others.


That's definitely true but in the case of my mother and (former) wife they are a pretty wide scope. Think of their knowledge as a continent with a shallow continental shelf.

My German is more like a Hawaiian island :-) -- very expressive for discussions around the house, politics, earth moving equipment and farm animals (the latter two due to childrearing). I am fine going out to the shops for groceries and calling to complain when the TV cable went out. But at parties I can only talk about so much; discussions of religion, negotiating contracts and the usual business day are utterly beyond me.


This article focuses on grammar, and the conclusions there seem plausible to me. But a related claim is that it's much harder to lose a foreign accent when speaking if exposed to the language past age 13 or so, and there I'm leaning toward thinking that this is true.

In reading and writing, I'm much better in English than in French. I bet I could pass for a native writer in the former (or fail to do so primarily because my spelling is TOO accurate ;-). But when speaking, I have a pretty obvious accent in English, despite spending years being immersed in it, and working on my pronunciation.

My spoken French, by virtue of starting a few years earlier (and being mercilessly drilled on pronunciation), is better, despite never having reached as high a level of immersion, and having lost quite a bit of my vocabulary.


With respect to pronunciation, I think it’s a trait different than language learning(grammar, vocabulary) itself. For example, I learnt Japanese(not fluent) when I was 25, and people in class were surprised at how good my pronunciation was. Same with when I learnt German(limited proficiency) 3 yrs ago. Recently. I taught myself to sing a few French songs. When people listen to me sing, they get surprised that I don’t speak french.

Perhaps I have an advantage in this area, as I grew up speaking three different unrelated languages, introducing me to wider range of phonetic sounds very early in life.


I've been told recently by my kid's speech therapist that if kids don't pickup how to properly pronounce harder-to-say sounds like L and R up to 14 yo, they'll probably never learn it. Which leads to the same conclusion, because I guess learning an accent is basically learning how to modify the way you make speech sounds.

Is it just me or does there seem to be some strange societal stigma around adult education/learning?

It's not just you. Adults get used to being competent and have stupid counterproductive identity issues around learning.

I put it like this:

9 year old who has been learning a skill (say how to draw or play a musical instrument) for one year says, "hey, I've learned a lot over a year and I'm not great yet, but I'm just 9 and have years to keep improving"

49 year old who has been learning same skill for one year: "I've made progress, but it's been a whole year and I still just draw/sound like a little kid"

In my own teaching, adults who put in the same amount of time and energy as kids generally progress as fast or faster.

(I was going to add that adults generally don't put in the time and energy, but then I remembered that lots of kids fail to do that as well)


> Adults get used to being competent and have stupid counterproductive identity issues around learning.

Learning to put my ego aside was one of the many great lessons I've learned from training Jiu Jitsu as an adult.


I wouldn't call it a stigma. I'd say there are issues with doing it appropriately. Adults have jobs, children, etc. They do not have the same "freedoms" a child has. While a child is forced to learn because of school+family, they have "free time" that is used to reinforce that. With adults, "free time" for reinforcement is harder to allocate.

Raising a toddler has demonstrated to me how much bullshit the idea of "kids are language sponges" is. My kid is like an ESL speaker: he doesn't understand grammar, he often will swallow sentences when he lacks the vocabulary to complete them, and he regularly mixes up word order and so on. He's been learning full-time in an immersion environment for several years. I'm pretty sure an adult that received this kind of immersive education would have been a much better English speaker by now.

This has been known for a long time and it causes a painful amount of eye-rolling among cognitive linguists.

When you carefully track the amount of time participants spend practicing the language, children don't perform better.

Kids are forced to speak the native language at school and get ~1 hour a day of grammar lessons. Just because a kid can explain a biological process doesn't mean they are "innately" better at grasping scientific concepts than adults. It just means we were working while they were in biology class.

Some of the "learn a language young" hype is driven by MRI studies that show kids who learn young process the second language in a different area of the brain than adults. But processing "centers" aren't in the same place from person to person, they float around.

For english speakers there is no economic benefit to learning a second language either. So (as long as you are a native english speaker) don't spend any additional resources teaching your kids a second language.


According to the abstract of the paper [1] summarised in the linked article, "Children learn language more easily than adults, though when and why this ability declines have been obscure ... [the evidence supports] the existence of a sharply-defined critical period for language acquisition." The paper was published in a leading cognitive science journal, and your claim that it is well-known among linguists that children are no better at language acquisition after controlling for learning time is not consistent with what I remember from my undergraduate linguistics studies. Can you provide a citation or clarify your claim?

[1] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S001002771...


Does anybody have a link to the quiz?

I think it's one of the two quizzes here: http://www.gameswithwords.org/quizzes

Edit: It's the "Which English" quiz, as per this article: http://news.mit.edu/2018/cognitive-scientists-define-critica...


"Fluent" is a strange term: it basically means "flowing", like verbal diarrhoea, perhaps. Does verbal diarrhoea need to be understandable? Does the one who spouts it need to understand anything anyone else says?

I'm not just being pedantic: it really is important to define exactly what you're interested in. I've met lots of people who speak English in a strange, foreign way, and quite slowly, but who are easier to understand than 99% of native speakers. And there are also lots of ways you can parameterise how well someone understands a language: you might find someone who has a good understanding of sociology jargon spoken by a US academic but couldn't understand someone from Northern England who wants to know what time it is.


Having read the article, this isn't even a test of language fluency -- it's a test of logic.

Imagine a university professor lecturing in an impenetrable accent, using the occasional idiom that probably made sense in another language.

Would they be able to pass a multiple-choice logic test written in English?

Are they "nearly as fluent" as a native speaker?


Studies were supposed to be about science and the scientific process and even there we now have reproducibility crisis and a whole string of dubious and discredited studies.

We are being overwhelmed by a culture of heavily funded think tanks, industry groups, sundry organizations and interest groups pushing completely motivated and self serving studies and being unquestioningly magnified by the press.

It's time to be extremely skeptical and closely examine the funding, motivation and organizations funding studies and research especially in scientific communities. The alternative is perpetuating toxic unscientific narratives backed by anecdotes and 'intuitive sense' of some.


A lot of it depends on the framework used to teach the language, as well as what works for the student as an individual. If those two happen to match, then magic happens. But it also takes a lot of hard work and drilling as an adult.

> However, looking more closely at the data for the students who started learning after the age of 20, there are a lot of late learners who outperformed many native English speakers.

Anyone who has been around expats and their children in a foreign country knows this is anecdotally false. Not only do kids pick it up faster, they’re immersed in it in a way that adults just really can’t be. Within the first year it’s clear as day.

It feels like this study is saying “we proved people on a motorcycle and people on a pogo stick can each travel 100 miles”


Much-needed Outline.com link: https://outline.com/AqBm6M

Outline seems to have doubled-up some of the images, unfortunately.


One thing to be aware of is the individual ability when it comes to acquiring language skills varies, a lot!

The same applies to any skill really. We all know self taught programmers who are great. We all know top school programmers who suck.

If you have a knack for it, age won't be much of an issue. If you don't, it'll be hard regardless. Children don't have a choice in the matter so they all learn. Once you have a choice, most will opt out of struggling to improve their language skills to remove accents, etc.


The trouble is the near-impossibility of controlled studies. Has there EVER BEEN a study where adults not only had immersion but went through the child's experience of having some parent-figures and teachers care for all their needs while constantly correcting and helping them with every bit of language and reading picture books or otherwise engaging with the most basic nouns and verbs (perhaps otherwise playing and engaging with mainly peers who are going through the exact same process) over about 2-3 years before being expected to grasp any really abstract concepts???

I'm pretty damn certain that I could go anywhere in the world and learn all the names for stuff in a house and basic actions and syntax in any language if I got to role-play as an 18-month-old 24-hours a day for a year, and I could go on to have 4-year-old near-native ability (even in pronunciation) in just 2-3 years and on and on.

Except there's no way I could ever get that experience and unlikely I would ever commit to it anyway. The only people who could ever even approach this are already outliers in massive ways.

But it's always seemed to me that people are crazily overconfident about what we know about child vs adult learning.


Look up the "conditioned head turn procedure" as a means of testing phonetic perception in infants. It is pretty well established that infants have a much greater ability to distinguish phonemes compared to adults.

What you said is true the other way around too. Infants can't look something up in a dictionary, or ask a bilingual person to clarify the finer points of a word or phrase in a language they already know. Infants aren't just learning the language but also the concepts behind the language, which would seem to make what they're doing more exceptional than adult language learning.


> Infants aren't just learning the language but also the concepts behind the language

Some people say that children don't just learn grammar, but that they sometimes also create the grammar rules of emerging languages through a process called creolization.


I don't doubt those differences, but as someone with a music background and an awareness of sound (and having seen others pick up accents and phonemes much less readily than myself), I still see so much we can't control for.

Maybe nobody has succeeded at getting adults as close as they can get to the infant state. How do we know the difference between adults being incapable of hearing phonemes similarly to infants versus failure to express to the adults what state they need to be in to listen? Obviously, most adults are filled with thoughts and cultural interpretations of any psychological study context and don't have the same open mind as an infant.

The differences are stark in practice between adult and infant learning and behavior. But what are the underlying factors that create the distinctions? I think we have very little practical capacity to tease them apart.


I live in Japan and speak Japanese reasonably well (not native level by any stretch of the imagination, but I can have casual conversations in virtually any normal context). I know a lot of expats who live near me and just can't seem to learn Japanese. One of the biggest things I noticed they had in common was a desire to avoid being treated like a child. My level is like that of an 8 or 10 year old (though I lack fluency is some normal grammar which most children have no trouble with). I'm very comfortable acting like an 8 or 10 year old. When I go to the doctor for example, I don't expect to understand what he's saying. The "explain it to me like I'm five" thing is my ordinary lifestyle. But I find that some people just can't accept the step down. If they are 30 years old, they want to go out with native speakers and interact as a 30 year old. Then they get frustrated and humiliated when they can't understand what's going on. They want to watch the news on TV and get frustrated when they can't understand any of it. They refuse to watch things (like cartoons) that they can understand, because it is too childish. It's a bit of a blocker, I think.

Admittedly, though, it's frustrating that people always have to make an effort with you. If you go out with a group of native speakers to a bar for an evening, there's a good chance that the only conversation you understand is when someone makes a special effort to speak to you. There is nobody in your peer group that has the same communication level as you, so you can get really lonely. I always had the strategy of coming up with one-liner jokes. Just sit back and listen and listen and listen until you finally understand something and then think of a quick funny, but irrelevant thing to insert in the conversation. It's doubly funny because everybody thinks you have no idea what's going on. But that was my thing for years -- I never said anything meaningful in a conversation in a group. Just like a kid...

But all that aside, it's actually pretty easy to show that adults can learn languages as fast as children. Children acquire about 3 "word families" per day on average from the age of 1.5 up to 15 (and continue as long as they continue formal education). A "word family" is a bit like a piece of vocabulary, but includes all the inflections and combination words (so if you know "police" and "station", then you also know "police station" -- it's not counted as a new piece of vocabulary). This works out to about 1000 word families a year (although the rate is very variable between the ages of 1.5 and 5 -- the average child ending up with 5000 word families by the age of 5).

That kind of stuff is very well understood. You can learn faster than that as an adult. It's not even very hard. The trick is understanding that it's going to take up to 5 years to speak like a 5 year old. Most people forget what it's like to be 5 and how crappy your language skills are. They think, "Oh these 5 year olds can play easily together and jabber on constantly" -- but put them in an adult environment and the vast majority will clam up or be just as frustrated as we are.


I have a three year old daughter who is very verbal, but every now and then she wants to tell me something and she just can't figure out the words to say it. She will get really frustrated and say "I can't talk!" and gets upset.

I don't know if adults are used to that sort of frustration in their daily lives, where you just can't communicate the thoughts you have. I can't imagine how hard that must be.


It is, for what it's worth, one of the most common reasons I hear from Chinese friends of mine who move back to China after living in the USA. They like a lot of things about the USA but expressing their full intellectual range is a constant and often unsuccessful struggle even for the ones who speak English fairly well, and they feel like they're not able to live up to their potential as a result.

Having lived in China a bit to immerse myself for language learning, I can totally get that. It is very humbling to hear something in a conversation, have complex thoughts about it, and be completely unable to respond with any nuance or subtlety or precision.


I too have a 3 year old, and we've been in the habit since he was 1 of me just feeding him lots of possible sentences to say to express what he might be wanting to say. If I get it close, he repeats verbatim. If it's not what he wants, he rejects it or twists it to closer to what he wants.

And yeah, probably a decent portion of infant emotion is on not being able to communicate. Those who learn infant sign language have a better time. Being able to sign "I want the water, not more food" versus being unable to communicate is a massive difference.

Adults get used to this sort of feeling of incompetence if they embrace always learning new skills. They can even get skilled at accepting it without frustration. But tons of adults avoid these things and basically stop learning entirely new skills and don't understand the value of accepting child-like novice learning.

I, for one, get pretty antsy doing anything I'm good at already. I'm only ever interested in stuff where I feel there's some challenge to work on and something new to learn.


This is an aside, and this sort of flattery is thankfully rare on HN, but you write very well. I say this as a fellow native English speaker. I’m sure your Japanese friends can sense that you are intelligent despite your language difficulties.

Your experience in Japan seems to support the findings of this study. Basically alcohol lowers inhibitions enough that people are less self conscious about speaking a foreign language and actually perform better.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/026988111773568...


I noticed this was definitely true for me during my first several years here in Japan. In normal conversation, I would end up overthinking my sentences and making mistakes fairly often, but when drinking all of the nervousness and extraneous thought went away, and I could speak faster and more fluently than I thought I was capable of. Even with vocabulary recall, I would sometimes be surprised with myself for using words I probably would never have remembered while sober. Of course I still made mistakes, but the fear of it was no longer an obstacle.

Even now, I probably still speak more fluently when drinking, but I think the gap has almost disappeared.


An 18-month old isn't just learning a language, they're acquiring language itself. At four-years-old, they aren't at "native speaker" level either.

A few years later, they acquire literacy, if taught. It's well-established that acquiring literacy at an older is more difficult. Young brains have higher plasticity.

Is it impossible to acquire literacy as an adult? Of course not. But it's far more difficult, to the point of being practically impossible for many people.

In context, the fact that 1000 out of several hundreds of thousands of samples managed to do something highly unlikely isn't that remarkable. It doesn't support the headline at all.


While I agree with you about plasticity there's a pretty good counterexample to your claim about literacy: in 1929 Turkey switched from the Arabic alphabet, which never quite fit the Turkish language phonetically, to a Roman script variant that they still use today. This was largely credited to the massive increase in literacy over the next decade (random searches suggest it went from 5-10% to 80%).

Consider in comparison SE Asian languages (eg Mandarin) that are _incredibly_ difficult to learn to read let alone write.

I learned some German years ago and the one thing I appreciated was that it is phonetic. You can probably teach someone to pronounce German (badly) in a day or two. Likewise if you hear a word you can probably spell it with very minor variations.


At the same time though, the new Turkish state pushed universal literacy as a policy goal and invested enormously in it in a way that the Ottoman empire didn't at all. It's very difficult to extract from data of that period (which may also have been manipulated for political purposes) how much of that change as due to the script vs other factors.

While I don't think it's controversial that phonetically written languages are easier to learn at first, nor that the Turkish Ottoman alphabet based on Arabic was not ideal for writing Turkish, I don't think it was uniquely difficult.

I think it's about as difficult as writing English correctly using our alphabet, which is to say it is harder than Spanish but much easier than writing Chinese languages.

Note that literacy rates in Arabic speaking parts of the Ottoman empire - most of it - where the script and the language matched was also low. You can make the argument that Arabic diglossia was responsible for some of that but still)


> While I agree with you about plasticity there's a pretty good counterexample to your claim about literacy: in 1929 Turkey switched from the Arabic alphabet, which never quite fit the Turkish language phonetically, to a Roman script variant that they still use today. This was largely credited to the massive increase in literacy over the next decade (random searches suggest it went from 5-10% to 80%).

Claims about the success of the Ataturk's reforms are probably about as credible as Soviet claims about worker productivity.

Other sources claim a literacy rate of 68% in 1975:

https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.ZS?end=2016...

Of course it can't be denied that school reforms had a massive impact on literacy, but it's not so clear how previously illiterate adults fared when learning to read and write for the first time.


> You can probably teach someone to pronounce German (badly) in a day or two. Likewise if you hear a word you can probably spell it with very minor variations.

If they're already familiar with the Latin alphabet, anyway (which admittedly is a good chunk of the world at this point; even if you're, say, Japanese or Korean, you know the Latin script because it's used pervasively). If not, then just learning the characters is gonna take a bit.


> If not, then just learning the characters is gonna take a bit.

It would still be easier than learning 1000+ characters in Mandarin.


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