Wednesday 17 November 2010

Age, decay, and missed opportunities

Let’s talk about real-life tales, for a change. If the title of this post sounds gloomy, please note that it is no gloomier than popular views about language learning. The early bird gets the languages, it appears. If you’re late, you won’t just learn languages in a defective way: the full message is that you won’t be able to learn them at all. “I’m too old to learn languages” is probably second only to “Multilinguals are special people”, on the scale of linguistic urban myths. The myth of the early bird has spawned the unsettling twin beliefs that you need to gorge small children with languages before it’s too late, and that doing so provides them with an unquestionable head start in life. I will come back to both in future.

The facts are that we simply don’t know whether age is a factor in language learning at all. The reason for our ignorance is that we have no hard evidence to either prove or disprove this claim. In fair investigations, if you suspect that some X may be correlating with some Y, you do all you can to isolate X in interaction with Y. That is, you remove anything else that may also interact with Y. If you don’t do this, you’ll have no way of telling whether it was X or something else that affected Y. This is step number one. If a correlation is indeed found, step number two involves proving that X causes an effect on Y. A correlation is different from a cause: in the monsoon season, in Singapore, torrential rains are regularly preceded by wind squalls. So wind correlates with rain, but this doesn’t mean that wind causes rain.

If you claim that (advanced) age is a factor, or perhaps even the factor, affecting language learning, age is your X and Y is language learning. Everything else that might have some effect on language learning, and that you are fairly aware of, should be controlled. Below is a summary of what I think is a fair sample of everyday observations about language learning. I leave it to you to supply the header row in the table, with appropriate “early language learning” and “later language learning” labels.

Saying that ageing stymies language learning is saying that you lose an ability that you once had. Some conditions are certainly degenerative: you are more likely to suffer from gout and hair loss later than earlier in life. But saying that the human brain refuses entry to languages (and why languages, of all things??) after a certain unspecified age, because it shuts down for languages at an unspecified age, is like saying that when we die, which we all will at an unspecified age, we will all be dead after an unspecified age. Nobody knows either, by the way, at what age the brain is supposed to lock its doors – or was it windows? –, including those of us who claim that there are doors and that they close.

I hope I’m making myself clear. I’m not saying that age is, or is not, the cause of differences in language learning. I’m saying that we don’t know. I am also saying that I find brain-shutdown theories of language learning quite disturbing: what they tell us is that whatever you do as a learner, you won’t succeed in learning, because your brain can’t cope with it. It certainly makes me wonder why this message doesn’t seem to have got across to the zillion-dollar language teaching and language learning corporations which, from their side, show no signs of imminent shutdown.

I’ll have more to say about brains in my next post, but let me leave you on a cheerful note. Two, actually. First, I know a few reasonably-brained individuals who, after three years of “later” Spanish-learning, were only able to say El perro está bajo la mesa, which I always thought was quite funny. But I didn’t know that there is a wonderful parody, in song format, of the same kind of communicative competence that you find yourself acquiring as a late learner. I came across it at Multilingual Mania (thank you, Melanie!). The only problem I have with this song is that it is so catchy it will stick to your mind instantly, and stay there – if your decaying musical brain is wired like mine, that is. You have been warned: it’s the One Semester of Spanish - Love Song.

The second good news is that even the brain of the dog who got sentenced to life under a table doesn’t shut down. Have a look here, in Spanish, for the sake of the dog, or here, in English, for the sake of my Spanish-learning friends.

Disclaimer: Any similarities with characters and/or goings-on in the fairy tale of my previous post are purely coincidental. This is, as said, a real-life tale.
Roberts, T., McGreevy, P., & Valenzuela, M. (2010). Human Induced Rotation and Reorganization of the Brain of Domestic Dogs. PLoS ONE, 5 (7). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0011946

© MCF 2010

Next post: Brains and fears. Saturday 20th November 2010.


  1. There are simply too many other explanations on why it becomes "impossible" to learn languages after a certain age. But again, why are some people able to learn new languages even at an "advanced" age? Are we saying that their brains are younger than their actual age? And I totally agree with you that language schools are showing no signs of closing down! If anything, they are making more and more money...

  2. ms_bobdog: I think one very, very powerful reason to learn is motivation. You must have a good reason to want to learn, and I think this is true of languages too. Cramming for tests is probably not a good reason, but wanting to be able to make friends in a new language sounds like one.
    One interesting thing that your comment reminded me of: there are reports that adult language learners show much better command of their new languages when they’re small-talking informally than when they are engaging in classroom-like exercises. Makes one wonder, doesn’t it?

  3. >You must have a good reason to want to learn, and I think this is true of languages too.<

    I very much agree with this statement. If I may add to this discussion, I do know some (not children, but grown-ups) who learn a ‘new’ language just so that they are equipped to do research fieldwork (the kind that involves talking to various people and generally immersing in the target culture and community) in a geographic location that they have a strong interest in for various reasons, and that uses that language. And of course, the more they work in those geographic locations, on the issues that interest them, the more competent in the language they become. I always thought this was a pretty cool way of acquiring a ‘new’ language!

    This is not to say, though, that the intention to do fieldwork is a prerequisite for successful language learning (it certainly is not), but it does mean that learning a language might come easier if there is a purpose for that learning, beyond that of simply adding to one’s ‘magical’ bag of languages as an end in itself. If we think about it, this is no different from why little children learn language(s). They learn it for a purpose or various purposes, e.g. to be better able to ask for things -- cookies, toys, etc., to be better able to express their discomforts, likes, dislikes. Grown-ups may (unfortunately for them) have more complicated purposes, but it does seem that, like little children, it is having a purpose for learning a language that facilitates that learning.


  4. Deborah: Children and later learners will naturally have different reasons to want to learn languages, as you say. Different languages are also learned for different purposes, regardless of age of learning, which is why they will develop differently too.
    And I agree with you: as far as methods are concerned, immersion, so that you can do fieldwork or get cookies, is a very effective way of learning languages!

  5. Oooo, you did it. Quiero un taco. Feliz cumpleaños. The one semester of Spanish Spanish love song. Drat! There's a hole in my bucket, my. . . :>) Great post!

  6. ¡Gracias, sí, de nada, Diane!, as Mike would have put it.
    My favourite line is “Me gusta la biblioteca”, though. Its conversational usability almost beats the one of “El perro...”. Almost.


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