Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login

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




Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: