An interesting new study…
An interesting new study…
For as long as I can remember, the prevailing ‘wisdom’ in language learning has been that children are far more capable of easily learning a language than adults. In linguistic circles, this notion is know as the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH).
In a non-academic nutshell, CPH suggests that there is a certain period, generally thought to run from early childhood until the early teen years (the exact period seems to vary, depending on whose work you read). This period is said to coincide with the state of physical plasticity of the brain that starts to wane as adulthood approaches. As such, it should be harder for adults to learn new languages than it might’ve been for them in youth.
CPH is, however, somewhat controversial in linguistics circles. Some evidence exists to prove that it applies more to acquiring one’s First Language (L1) than to Second Language (L2). Other evidence suggests that CPH implies that adults learning a language will never quite get the pronunciation/accent of acquired languages right, but that it doesn’t impede the learning of vocabulary, idiom, etc. CPH definitely seems to have some implications. Exactly which implications? The jury still seems to be out on that.
Personally, CPH has always rubbed me the wrong way. I learned 3 of my languages after the CPH had already run its course on me. Professors have dismissed me, saying I’m an “outlier.” Yet, I’ve known a lot of people who have acquired a second language well into adulthood and learned to speak it rather well. Anecdotal evidence aside, a look at the current literature on CPH also seems to suggest that I may have been on to something.
I’ve always argued that adults have more language learning tools at their disposal than do children. Adults already have a grammatical “matrix” built up upon which to “hang” new languages. Adults already have life experience and the ability to recognize patterns. Children are having to create (or discover) this “matrix” as they acquire their L1.
Children definitely have an advantage in that they don’t really see what they are doing as “learning.” No stress = ease of acquisition and retention. Adults can get hung up on perfecting grammar and pronunciation, while children don’t mind that their utterances aren’t perfect. “Why can Superman can fly?” is still a perfectly valid question that makes perfect sense, even though it suggests that the child uttering it hasn’t figured out deletion yet. An adult might be horribly embarrassed to make such an error. Such embarrassment and stress can definitely adversely affect learning.
NewScientist has published a new article which states that new research may suggest that, under certain conditions, adults may actually be better at learning languages than children: Age no excuse for failing to learn a new language. Potentially very interesting stuff.
What are your thoughts? Do you have any anecdotal evidence of your own that seems to debunk CPH?
My hometown paper, the Daily Times Herald in Carroll, Iowa, did me the honor of asking me to write an Op-Ed piece on why I think we should learn other languages. It’s a bit long, but they decided to run the full version with very few, minor cuts.
I hope you enjoy it! As always, I welcome any feedback you might have.
If you’re a Russian learner, but bored with textbooks, why not check out the Russian version of LOLCats? Don’t expect to see Vanya asking for directions to the movie theater, though. Some of these pictures do to the Russian language what LOLCats did (and continues to do) to English. If your Russian slang helmet is a bit rusty, fear not. Each comes with its own English translation and, if it exists, a cultural or historical explanation.
The moral of the story: learning the local language is a first step toward building bridges of friendship.
Do you study (or speak) a European language? Are you worried about losing it? Why not try listening to radio broadcasts your target language?
Countless radio stations all over the world stream their content over the internet, but it can be hard to find some of them if your Search Fu isn’t strong. Well, the folks as listenlive.eu have taken care of that. Need to work on your Russian? French? Italian? Icelandic? All you have to do is go to their website and search by country. (They even have Vatican State!)
As I mentioned in Learning Languages Tip #1, watching videos can be a great way to supplement your language learning experience. Here’s one of my favorites from a German band called “Farin Urlaub Racing Team.” The song is “Niemals (Nothing).” Both the original German lyrics and an English translation are below the video. Enjoy!
Ich wünsch mir, dass ich dich vergessen kann,
Doch mir ist klar,
Vielleicht liegts daran,
Ich lege dir mein Herz zu Füßen,
Mir ist klar,
Du sagst du willst nichts von mir,
Die Zeit vergeht langsam,
Mir ist klar,
I wish that I’m able to forget you,
But I’m aware of it
Maybe it depends on the fact
I lie my heart down at your feet,
I’m aware of it
You tell me that you don’t want anything from me,
Time is passing slowly,
I’m aware of it
[Lyrics courtesy of http://lyricstranslate.com]
Even if you don’t live in a country where your target language is spoken natively, you can still emulate some of the benefits you can get from such a situation.
Thanks to technology, the world is more connected than ever before. For today’s tip, you don’t need much more than you already obviously have (seeing as you’re reading this right now): a computer and a web connection.
Go to YouTube.com (or any other online streaming service) and search for a topic you are very interested in or already know a lot about. Watch videos pertaining to that topic and see how much of your existing knowledge helps you understand the context of what is happening. Don’t worry about picking up individual words. Don’t worry about how much you understand. Just engage all available senses and allow the input to soak in and synergize.
Couple this with your existing language study plan, and I think you’ll find yourself learning much more quickly and deeply than you would through books or classes alone. Try it out! Leave a comment below and let everyone know how you’re fairing.