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Too old to learn? Research says no.

If you’ve ever met a child growing up speaking more than one language, you know that children have a phenomenal capacity to pick up a new language. To an adult, especially one who has tried to learn a second language later in life, it appears almost magical.  How can it be so easy for them? For a long time, linguists and cognitive psychologists generally agreed that this difference was the result of maturational changes in the brain that happened somewhere around the onset of puberty, resulting in sharply diminished language learning abilities.  The Critical Period Hypothesis, as it’s called, gave a rather bleak outlook for the adult language learner. This, however, did not stop many post-critical-period learners from persevering and in some cases even achieving near native fluency, and recently, many researchers have started questioning the hypothesis.

In their 2003 study, Hakuta, Bialystok and Wiley analyzed census data from over 2 million immigrants learning English for signs of a steep drop off in language learning ability in adulthood. They tested two cut-off points, 15 and 20 years of age, but the sharp contrast between learners who started before and after these points just wasn’t there.  Language learning success did decrease with age, but more gradually than predicted by the CPH.  Subsequent research looking at the effect of age on language learning has been divided, but the majority of researchers agree that situation is more complex than previously thought.


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  • edited May 2016
    Given hope by these findings, one researcher, Gary Marcus, wrote a book Guitar Zero in which he attempts to learn guitar at the ripe old age of thirty-eight.  In particular, he cites one study that gave him not only inspiration but a method to tackle the task. The study looked at the ability of barn owls to learn how to pinpoint the location of a sound with experience.  The standard wisdom had been that after a certain age, barn owls couldn’t learn to locate sounds in new ways -basically wearing the funny looking refracting goggles that force them to recalibrate this skill. (You can think of the goggles as a metaphor for the new language you’re trying to learn.  You have to re-learn how to speak in order to speak in French or Japanese or whatever language you are learning.)  Old barn owls were deemed hopeless at picking up new ways of locating sounds, that is, until researchers began to change the way they “taught” the owls to locate sounds. What the researchers found was that the older owls just needed to learn in a different way: incrementally. Building up to more dramatic changes in a step-by-step fashion, the adult owls were able to achieve the same results as the younger owls.

    This is great news for Living Language learners! Our method is based on the idea that adult learners need to learn differently, taking in bite-size bits of the new language and building up from words to phrases to sentences and finally to full conversations.  Marcus took this approach to learning guitar and achieved a level of success he had not imagined prior.  Take a look at the article he wrote about his experience recently in the New Yorker.

    In a nutshell, research shows that learning a language as an adult is not impossible; it’s just different! And your approach to learning should reflect those differences.  Our courses are designed to help. Here are some quick and easy tips to learn like an adult:

    1. Patience. Learning as an adult is a slower process because we have other demands on our brain and our time.  But you can get there, in time.

    2. Take it step-by-step. Your LL course is designed to build your knowledge gradually. Each lesson takes you just a bit farther towards fluency. Work through the material incrementally and the task will be more manageable.

    3. Use what you know. You already know at least one language, and you can use it to help learn a new one. You’ll see that we make a lot of use of this kind of bootstrapping in our courses.

    4. Learn like you always have. You’ve learned how to learn things throughout your life. Language is just another kind of thing to learn, so you can bring to bear all sorts of learning strategies that you’ve developed.

    The most important thing is to take inspiration from others' success stories. It can be done. And if you have a success story yourself, post it on the forum!

     
  • I've always stressed the importance of points 3 and 4 to people who ask the difference between first language acquisition and adult/second/third language acquisition.

    First language acquisition seems very automatic, and it is pretty amazing in many ways. But the adult teaching methods that try to mimic first language acquisition (I call them snake oil!) are missing a few important points. First of all, most linguists laugh at the notion that the mechanisms at work in first language acquisition are alive and well into adulthood. We could go down a theoretical and research rabbit hole on that, and to be fair there are dissenting opinions (as always in academic fields!) but there's a much easier way to think about it, and you don't have to subscribe to any particular theoretical framework.

    Have you ever played charades? Do you know how frustrating it is when you can't figure out what on earth the actor is trying to convey? Well... why in the world would anyone want to learn a language that way? Think of some of the grammar and usage points that you may have come across in our courses, or other properly conceived-of courses. Do you think you could have grasped them through charades? That's really what the no-translation, pictures and context methods are trying to do. 

    The answer may be yes, but only with a lot of time and effort, and the risk of confusion, misunderstanding, and pulling out of hair. The alternative - just spitting it out! - is a lot more efficient, and as an adult who's used to learning new and complex systems, you can handle the more efficient way.
  • Well, this is my own experience and I am not speaking for other people.  I think the CAPABILITY at work in first language acquisition is alive and well in adulthood, but with a different mechanism.  Of course, things could be different if a person suffers a brain injury, but that's a different story and way out of my "expertise"......

    First, I have to disagree with some people's claim that you can learn a new language without learning the grammar because the native speakers didn't learn their native language with grammar.  I have to say that those people skipped some points.  I moved to the States and learned English here in my early teens.  Back in my birth country, I did learn grammar in school!  And grammar was part of my regular English (not ESL) curriculum here in the States.  So native speakers do learn grammar. 

    Second, some people would say that a six-year old probably wouldn't have learned any grammar in pre-school or kindergarten and could still communicate.  True, very true.  But a six-year old wouldn't  be able to adapt the tone or have the vocabulary of a speech to various social situations.  People learn that in school.  They learn to write and speak in front of the people.  I have some friends who were born and raised here in the States.  They speak one language at home and English in school.  But honestly, I wouldn't call their home language as their native language even though that's the language they first learned.  They just switch back to English if the content of the conversation becomes advanced or technical.  Anyway, my point is, even native speakers learn through an organized way.

    Third, a person doesn't have any influence from other languages when he/she is learning his first language.  I think we sometimes end up referencing our first language even when we do it subconsciously.  I am learning German, and people have asked me to clarify sie and Sie.  All I do is show them the chart in my Living Language book:

    I - ich                   we - wir
    you(fam) - du       you(fam) - ihr
    he/it - er               they - sie
    she/it - sie            you(pol) - Sie
    it - es

    They immediately understood everything once they see this chart.  I don't even have to say anything!  It just took them 10 seconds to figure it out.  Meanwhile, they were trying to figure out things by themselves for days.  So I think grammar is essential in learning a new language.

    I don't believe in the critical-period hypothesis completely.  I mean, as little kids, we didn't have to worry about working and paying the bills.  We just had so much more time on learning our first language.  But based on personal experience, I do think that adults can learn new languages (note the plural form!).  They just do it differently.  Oh...they probably do need some help on pronunciation and accent... I know I do with German!!
  • Hi Grace!
    Thanks for contributing! I couldn't agree more with your point that adult learners, and even teenagers as in your experience, learn differently than children.  Showing a young child the pronoun chart in German you mentioned would obviously not make sense! But an adult can quickly and easily grasp that difference with just a little explicit instruction.  And to your point about learning to speak in different social situations, even in your native language, up through school age, yes, pragmatics continue to develop far beyond the time when we have our native language's core grammar in place. (Make me think of my nephew, who is just learning how to do turn-taking on the phone.  It's not always smooth, but he's working on it!)
    Lastly, it is interesting how pronunciation and accent are particularly challenging for adults. Luckily, there are studies such as this one by Bongaerts et al. (1997) that have found L2 speakers who are perceived as native by native speaking judges.  Generally it seems that motivation and exposure to native speakers are the two most important factors for success. So e-tutoring and a strong desire to learn should help!
    Thanks again for chiming in.  And good luck with German!
    Erin
  • The aspect under discussion is so very subjective, that there aren't any wrong answers. Even when we are young, some kids develop certain skills sooner, and better, than others. I feel the principle holds true for adult learners as well. 
    As an adult learning a new language, there are times when I'm really struggling with the language - I face it most while working on the speech part, as I tend to forget words. So far, I've realized that I'm better at reading and writing than speaking Spanish. Also, because I don't get to practice the speech part often(hope to remedy that).
    On the other hand, it feels really good when the learning, as little as it might be, helps draw parallels with the overall learning, so far. 
    I quite enjoy my role reversals from a "dunce" to an "egghead" (and right back). It's fun. Wouldn't have thought of it this way in school ;) 
  • My humble and unscientific experience with about 15 senior (private) students between 60 and 82 suggests me that learning a language (in my case Italian) helps the brain to be more active for the very reason that you are using it in an unfamiliar way -- i.e. not just doing the same daily brain tasks. Most of the students actually took the lessons for that very reason. That said, I do feel that there are several limits in  learning a language as an adult.That does not mean a person has to give up or not trying, I am just saying that learning a language seems to become more and more difficult as we age (like most learning) An exception I noticed is in students who had learned a language while younger, in that case they would actually be better at learning than the other students. I myself learned English at the tender age of 27 (i.e. very late) or so, and, my thick accent apart, I do feel I never got really fully good with the language.  That said, again, this is a very un-scientific contribution to the discussion. 
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