Learning languages

As an ESL instructor and someone who studied Latin in high school and then was a few months shy of 30 when she started to learn Spanish, I am always interested in learning about learning languages.  So when I read a post today on io9 that talked about the advantages adults have in language learning, I was curious.  What would a site that mostly talks about science fiction have to say about language learning?

Turns out the author, Esther Inglis-Arkell, had quite a bit to say:

Fully grown adults may have a better shot at learning language than small children. One of the main advantages kids were shown to have was their ability to pick up language without consciously learning the definitions of a word. … Adults tended to try to consciously learn the words, which made them harder to remember and contextualize.

But having a grown-up brain has advantages. Adults seem able to recognize patterns, and apply their knowledge, far better than children. In a series of experiments, people saw and heard a string of noun-verb pairs, which were all pronounced and spelled differently depending on whether they applied to living objects, or inanimate ones. This is not an established rule of the language, and no one told the participants what the rule was. Young children, ages five to eight, were in general unable to figure out the rule. Twelve-year-olds managed to work out the rule and applied it correctly in over ninety percent of the cases. Adults, however, scored highest on the test, able to figure out what was going on and apply their knowledge more than any of the younger groups. …

Reading further at NewScientist, there is mention of adults even being able to master pronunciation better than children.  I couldn’t find anything more about that, but I would like to.  Pronunciation is the one thing we traditionally think children can almost always master better than adults can.  I definitely want to read the research on this.

On a somewhat related tangent, when we were recently in South Dakota, we went to a Mexican restaurant.  As always, my husband and I spoke Spanish to our obviously Hispanic waiter.  After a few minutes he asked me, “¿De donde es? ¿Es de Argentina?” — Where are you from?  Are you from Argentina?  I had to laugh, and my apologies to my Argentinian friends who would be appalled to think someone actually thought I was Argentinian!  I explained that I was from the US but had lived in a wide variety of Spanish-speaking countries.

That is what happens when I speak Spanish.  No one ever thinks I am from their country (The waiter happened to be from El Salvador.), but they always assume I am a native Spanish speaker from some other country.

So when people tell me adults can’t learn the accent, I have to disagree.  It is possible.  Of course, it didn’t happen overnight.  But it happened.  And I believe that, under the right conditions, most adults can develop a fairly authentic accent.  If they want to, that is!

This study, which was presented at a conference in Montreal, may not be the first to make claims for adults’ abilities to learn language, but the idea that adults are at a disadvantage in this regard is still widespread.  Adults like to think they can’t learn languages because it gives them an excuse not to try.  I hope that this research helps to change that.


3 thoughts on “Learning languages

  1. That is an interesting study. I had to take a test, the DLAB, before the military would let me study Arabic. It was designed to see how fast you could pick up another language. For the purpose of the exam, they used a fake language that does not exist. It introduces new words and grammer rules as it progresses. Definitely not easy and many people couldn’t score high enough to get schooling in the harder languages such as Arabic and Chinese. I managed to make the cut off score, but it was unlike anything I had seen before. You would have to recognize patterns or you would never score well. If you showed at least some aptitude, you could get languages like French and Spanish though.

    1. That would be an interesting test to take!

      Some of us have more aptitude for language than others, and I can see saving the more difficult/dissimilar languages for people with the greatest aptitude. Economically it makes most sense. That doesn’t mean, though, that someone who only qualified to study Spanish couldn’t learn Chinese if she really wanted to.

      Thanks for your comment!

    2. It was an interesting test to take. It is impossible to study for it so you just have to hope for the best. As for those who show aptitude in the difficult languages, even then it is hard to pass the courses. About one-third of Arabic students fail and have to be sent to the easier ones. No idea how bad it is for Chinese and that one is even harder.

      I did know one guy who scored rather low on the language aptitude test but accidentally got stuck in Arabic anyway. He struggled far more than anyone else and consistently stayed as the worst in the class. Despite this, we had a very commited Egyptian instructor that refused to give up on the guy. He gave him private lessons every day. Plus the guy studied 4-5 hours each night. He just barely passed the course. That is the only example I know of though.

      You are right that economically the military has to be prudent in who gets into language courses. It can cost them well over $100k to send one person through Arabic. I think it might even be over $200k but I would have to check (this is for the 18 month full time course). Letting people with low aptitudes in would simply cost the tax payers too much money as the odds of them in failing would be much higher. Plus there is nearly a year wait just to get into the Arabic language program (at least when I went it was because the demand is so high).

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