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.
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.
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.
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’m merely suggesting that this article in particular (and the study behind it) might be bogus and that people should not fall for it.
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.
> 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.
I would have guessed mathematicians were, on average, supernerds with less life responsibilities than average people.
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.
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?".
> 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is with learning pretty much anything. Adults typically just have less time than their younger counter parts.
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.
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.
Well, at least didn’t help me much
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
I will probably not learn to do backflips ;-).
I would like to learn to ride a hoverboard though. That looks fun.
Fix your hypertonicity and poor mobility, and you could fall like a child again :)
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.
Same goes for a small human vs big human.
But that may be because of a nonrepresentative sample on one or both sides of the comparison.
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.
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.
'Course it would then take further training to be actually able to speak them.
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.
A better example would be learning to cook or doing a Rubik cube.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I think Chigorin is a good counterexample.
> 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".
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.
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.
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
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."
> 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.
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.
If a child lives in X, he/they will Y.
If a child lived in X, he/they would Y.
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.
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.
Of course I'm just monolingual and don't know anything :)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 :)
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.
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!
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.
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.
I would assume an adult who is dedicated to learning a language could get to the same level in 5 years with enough motivation.
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.
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.
Hope that helps :-)
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.
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 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.
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.
betaby above, an immigrant, suggests this to be the case.
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.
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.
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...
Interestingly, it also has pitch as a part of accent:
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.
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 :)
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.
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.
I am German and I often get asked if I am Irish :-)
I don't think he treats random brazilian differently, just that he isn't seeking a brazilian community.
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.
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.
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.
^ 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.
That's, IMO, an unwarranted (and, taken strictly, almost implausible) assumption. (Especially on the interest side.)
What methods did you use to shave off ~40 weeks that are required for normal people to learn the language ?
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.
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.
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.
Obligatory Eddie Izzard: Learning French 
In my experiences, learning French well is more difficult than people think, German not as much.
Forget the books and turn on the radio and TV instead.
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
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'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.
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
> 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.
"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..."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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)
Learning to put my ego aside was one of the many great lessons I've learned from training Jiu Jitsu as an adult.
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.
Edit: It's the "Which English" quiz, as per this article: http://news.mit.edu/2018/cognitive-scientists-define-critica...
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.
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?
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.
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”
Outline seems to have doubled-up some of the images, unfortunately.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Even now, I probably still speak more fluently when drinking, but I think the gap has almost disappeared.
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.
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.
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)
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:
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.
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.
It would still be easier than learning 1000+ characters in Mandarin.