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The linguistic genius of adults: Research confirms we’re better learners than kids!

| 109 comments | Category: learning languages

I wrote in great detail before about why adults are much better language learners than kids, but now linguists are starting to chime in!

There is a stupid rumour going around that you can’t learn a language after a certain age (was it 6, or 12, or 14? I forget where the drunk blind man threw the dart that we have been basing this on) and considering I myself started properly at age 21, and how many people have been sharing their own success stories with me (if you have one, make sure to share it with all of us in the Fi3M forum’s success stories section – the best ones will get showcased on the blog!) I hope to have the ammunition to destroy this pointless demotivator.

The most discouraging TED talk ever

I’ve had some frustration with some linguists in the past when they make remarks that they can’t back up with relevant research, which serve no purpose but to discourage learners. But when they get taken seriously by the public, then I have to take a stand against it.

Among the worst examples include an otherwise interesting TED talk about The Linguistic genius of babies – in it she shows us a bullshit graph about the “critical period” for learning a language where all hope is lost from age 17. She drives it home with the comment “no scientists dispute this curve”. Really now?

She also claims that age ONE is where we can can no longer distinguish foreign sounds any more; “You and I can’t do that… we can discriminate the sounds of our own language, but not those of foreign languages”. This is just ridiculous. After some focused training, and sometimes even just a few seconds of paying attention, and you’ll hear it. In some cases, it’s harder and takes a wee bit more time, but it’s definitely not impossible.

She doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about because she actually researches babies.

This stuff really pisses me off as the “research” tests in a context and environment that children are bound to win on anyway (such as traditional classroom learning) and doesn’t test in areas that adults would be better at. As far as I’m concerned this is totally irrelevant research, as well as being unhelpful. I can’t imagine how many people were on the fence, but saw a video like this or read some paper where kids came out on top… in classroom learning, and decided from that to give up, even though they have many many advantages the kids don’t.

Seriously TED, you need to get me to speak up on one of your stages (Edit: They did!!) so I can undo the damage of this previous talker, as well as destroy people’s own misconceptions. Millions of adults around the world learn languages to excellent levels fine all the time. Any sloppy research that comes up on this is arguing against an army of people that disprove it.

Linguists who are working for the greater good

Fortunately this is not the case for all linguists, and now popular research is backing up what I’ve been saying all along!

I was just on Google plus, and my friend Joop shared this link with me so I thought I had to get it on the blog:

Age no excuse for failing to learn a new language – New Scientist

Researchers realised that there are crucial differences in how adults vs children learn and tried to demonstrate it in this research. When they did, surprise surprise, adults come out on top. Once again, for more specifics about how I think this works on a broader scale – read my post about how you are not too old to learn a language.

Let me know your thoughts on this in the comments!

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  • A D Lempert

    I always thought that the cut-off date as a youngster was for learning the language with Native Level Fluency and Pronunciation. Not for learning the language period!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Firstly, that’s never made clear, especially in this TED video. When you watch it you get the idea that all adults are screwed no matter what they want to do.
      Secondly, I disagree even with that research. Again, it’s testing using the wrong context. I found that getting a music teacher helped me to reduce my pronunciation errors in Portuguese. More generally, speech therapists and voice trainers are well equipped to help adults get around accent and pronunciation problems in most cases.
      Native level fluency takes time, but is possible and I have met people who have achieved it when starting off as adults. This simply cannot be disputed when there is evidence to the contrary.

      • http://twitter.com/mhhall Helen Hall

        The recent reading I did for the research project for my BA dissertation about learning Welsh as an adult indicated that this “critical period” idea has been abandoned. A pity that the TED lecturer hadn’t kept herself updated!

        There is a slow decline in a person’s ability to learn a new language as they get older, but there is no cut-off point or sudden drop in ability and older people can make use of their language skills in their native language to help them master another. There is absolutely no reason why an older person who is motivated and  puts in the effort to learn can’t do just as well as someone younger.

        Even a native like fluency and good accent are possible as long as the learner pays attention to the details of pronuciation.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

          I’d be glad to hear that it has been abandoned by the linguistic community, however I still have to pick up the pieces as the remnants will linger on for quite some time in people’s minds.

      • http://www.soultravelers3.com soultravelers3

        I totally agree that adults can learn any language/s that they set their mind too, but as monolinguals raising a fluent-as-a-native trilingual/triliterate in Spanish/Mandarin/English ( from birth..actually from the womb) our experience has been that language learning is MUCH easier for kids who learn it from birth.

        She also has studied violin from 23 months and piano from 3, so has a good ear and she ( like most kids) has an easier time with instruments as well ( as did all the 3,4, 5 etc year old kids in her Suzuki class with parents learning the same instrument).

        There were a  few key words in that article that I think are important to note, not to discourage adults from language learning, but perhaps to encourage them with  also teaching those languages to  their babies or future babies.

        “under controlled conditions”

        “warns that artificial experiments like this do not necessarily transfer to the real world”

        “children are more likely to get the chance to learn implicitly”

        Also it is interesting that this study was done in comparing adults to 8 and 12 year old children and it does not say if they were bilingual from birth in the tested language or if they were studying the language like in school which is quite different and at those ages ( 8 to 12) they are already processing language more like adults instead of how a baby processes languages. ( The languages learned deeply from birth gives one more than one mother tongue and are done in the front of the brain compared to later learned languages which is done in other parts of the brain…some say the 8 to 12 level is stored the same as adults).

        There are amazing lifelong cognitive benefits to learning a language from birth. So lets not throw the baby out with the bath water. Learn languages at ANY age and be smart and start passing them onto your babies.  As MIT linguist Pinker says, “One free lunch in the world is to learn another language in early childhood.”

        I have seen first hand how totally effortless that is for speaking like a native before 2 years old ( but adding reading and writing like a native takes more work).

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

          Babies are great, but saying that adults can’t learn just as well or better is WRONG. Please read other comments here that confirm.

          Your experience isn’t extensive enough because you haven’t personally become fluent in another language, so you don’t know what is involved for learning efficiently as an adult. I’m sure your experience helping babies learn is way more than most people could dream to have, but you are only seeing one side of the story here.

          I’m not doubting babies’ potential and the importance of helping them learn, and I’d encourage as many readers with children to do exactly as you did, but turning that around into “but adults can’t learn as efficiently because babies are so great” is stupid IMO.

          Once again it’s about effort. I’d agree with your very last statement about it being “effortless” (to an extent) with infants to help them learn another language. But once effort is applied with adults, they can and will learn just as well or BETTER because they have other advantages.

          • http://www.soultravelers3.com soultravelers3

            Good points Benny. I was comparing my first hand experience with what I have seen with my daughter ( mother tongue Spanish)  and husband ( who we consider a monolingual but is fluent by your definition). We have many good friends who only speak Spanish, spent 4 winters in Spain and although many English monoglots  might be very  impressed with my husband’s abilities in Spanish, Spaniards are not and even his own parents who are fluent bilinguals  ( Spanish mother tongue) would not.

            On the other hand all Spanish speakers consider our daughter as a native speaker as it is indeed one of  her mother tongues.  Although he was instrumental in helping her achieve her Spanish ( as well as my efforts of exposing her to native speakers during pregnancy, babyhood & childhood), she surpassed him in ability before she was two years old.

            An expert on bilingualism ( and native Spanish speaker) was absolutely amazed that an adult with that bad of Spanish and accent could raise a two year old with perfect native Spanish. ( His Spanish sounds perfect to me and is better than mine will ever be). We all manage in all Spanish environments, but our daughter is the only native speaker, so helps us when we get stuck. No matter how hard he works at it, my husband will never be a native speaker like my daughter. ..who got it all effortlessly.

            Not saying no adult can do this, some may indeed by better at language learning than my husband, just that from what I have seen it is harder for adults and babies have some advantages when the brain is most geared to learning language.

            Perhaps there should be a quantifier with this article that is comparing adults with 8 and 12 year old language learners and not adults with children who learned a language from birth. Since adults would be much more motivated to learn a language than an 8 to 12 year old, it makes sense their maturity would help in many ways.

            I love your passion about languages…it’s all good!!

          • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

            1. “who we consider a monolingual but is fluent by your definition”. You don’t understand my definition of fluent then. You can see me interview natives about complex topics in videos on the site – if you call someone who does that “monolingual” then you’re crazy. If your husband has rudimentary Spanish then please don’t misunderstand my or any one else’s definition of fluent ;).

            If he has something akin to European C1/C2 mastery level, then call a spade a spade and stop saying he’s monolingual. If natives are really reacting so negatively to him then based on your description I’d say he’s “basic conversational”, which is NOT the same thing as fluent.

            So once again I’ll say that you are only seeing one side of the story. I’m talking about adults who, through efficient learning methods, reach mastery (high level fluency) in a language. This is possible and frequent. Many people don’t do it and in my opinion it’s because their approach and attitude was wrong, NOT because of their age.

            2. I’m not adding a quantifier – as I said in other comments if you put me against a 3 month old, and give both of us 3 months of full time immersion then who do you think will be communicating more at the end?

            That’s the point – if you arm an adult with a learning approach that suits him and he is motivated and has the appropriate resources, then in a given time he will learn just as well as a child of any age. The child will require totally different resources and learning environments etc. and perhaps will learn faster in a comparably ideal situation, but a direct comparison is impossible because we can’t put them both through exactly the same system, and we can’t confirm that we are providing them individually with their ideal learning system.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Firstly, that’s never made clear, especially in this TED video. When you watch it you get the idea that all adults are screwed no matter what they want to do.
      Secondly, I disagree even with that research. Again, it’s testing using the wrong context. I found that getting a music teacher helped me to reduce my pronunciation errors in Portuguese. More generally, speech therapists and voice trainers are well equipped to help adults get around accent and pronunciation problems in most cases.
      Native level fluency takes time, but is possible and I have met people who have achieved it when starting off as adults. This simply cannot be disputed when there is evidence to the contrary.

  • A D Lempert

    I always thought that the cut-off date as a youngster was for learning the language with Native Level Fluency and Pronunciation. Not for learning the language period!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jordan.mccollum Jordan McCollum

    Thanks for sharing this study! In college, my linguistics professors cited the same kind of statistics, that we lost the ability to distinguish foreign sounds fairly young. Which was kind of odd, since in another class, we studied phonetics, and not just English phonetics. There were lots and lots of sounds we learned to produce and tried to recognize (for transcription) that didn’t appear in English.

    On the other hand, after having tried to phonetically transcribe some Arabic, there were definitely some sounds in there that I couldn’t produce or distinguish. (Epiglottal consonants, anyone??) But I don’t really have a desire to speak Arabic, so I’ve never made an effort to learn epiglottal consonants beyond that exercise in college. I guess this means there’s hope–if I ever did want to learn Arabic.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Kind of ironic that in the same university one professor is teaching you something that another professor says is impossible to learn…

  • Scott

    I started learning Esperanto six years ago, when I was 43.  The amorphous “they”  said it would take only about 150 hours, and while it might have taken me a little longer than that, it wasn’t by much.  Within a few months of starting, I was writing my entire blog in Esperanto, and I wasn’t dumbing it down any; I achieved written fluency amazingly quickly (spoken fluency took longer, mainly because I couldn’t find anyone to practice with).

    Any adult who thinks they can’t learn a language will likely find that they CAN learn Esperanto, and once they have I swear they will have a serious leg up on learning the next language.  Personally, I am willing to float the idea that ALL language learners should start with Esperanto, because it takes such a small amount of time to learn, and because it gives the learner such a solid grounding in the fundamentals of language.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I actually promoted the same suggestion myself here: http://fi3m.com/2-weeks-of-esperanto as at least a bridge to other languages ;)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I actually promoted the same suggestion myself here: http://fi3m.com/2-weeks-of-esperanto as at least a bridge to other languages ;)

  • Scott

    I started learning Esperanto six years ago, when I was 43.  The amorphous “they”  said it would take only about 150 hours, and while it might have taken me a little longer than that, it wasn’t by much.  Within a few months of starting, I was writing my entire blog in Esperanto, and I wasn’t dumbing it down any; I achieved written fluency amazingly quickly (spoken fluency took longer, mainly because I couldn’t find anyone to practice with).

    Any adult who thinks they can’t learn a language will likely find that they CAN learn Esperanto, and once they have I swear they will have a serious leg up on learning the next language.  Personally, I am willing to float the idea that ALL language learners should start with Esperanto, because it takes such a small amount of time to learn, and because it gives the learner such a solid grounding in the fundamentals of language.

  • http://midlifesinglemum.blogspot.com Midlife Singlemum

    PHew! I’m so glad you said that – there are languages I still want to learn.

  • http://midlifesinglemum.blogspot.com Midlife Singlemum

    PHew! I’m so glad you said that – there are languages I still want to learn.

  • Eri

     Oh no! If all hope is lost after age 17 I must learn all the languages I wish to THIS YEAR! Seriously, they’re implying all hope is lost when you “become an adult” but 18 is basically a made up age by people to determine an adult. And it varies in different places, most people are used to it being 18, but where I live I’m not technically considered an adult until I’m 19, in some places it’s not until you’re 20. Some places you’re an adult when you’re 16. I don’t know why they think that the number of years THEY say is the amount you’re a child is the amount of years you can learn a language (or really anything, I told my dad I wanted to learn to play the violin and he told me I would’ve had to start that when I was 5… when I move out I’m so going to prove him wrong). Are they saying that depending on where you live the number of years you have to learn is different? (I’m sure there’s some ‘brain development’ reason for 18 being the year you turn into an adult, but who says it takes exactly 18 years? It’s probably different for everyone >>)

    I really wish people would stop saying they can’t do something ‘because they’re too old’. I mean, I know I’m not that old, but I tend to be a pessimist about everything. This is the one thing that I constantly say “you’re never too old to learn something”, and no one believes me. You’d think they’d figure if the eternal pessimist is saying this, it’s probably something worth taking to heart. Or at least look in to a little more. :/

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      As I said in the article, the magic age is decided by a drunk blind man with a dart. For much more than just “critical language learning” age ;)

    • Gast

      My mother only started playing the violin when she was in her fourties. Within a year, she reached a level of skill I myself only reached after about 6 years, having started as an 8 year old. And not because I had no talent: I passed the conservatoire entrance exams at age 16. Learning to play the violin, like learning to speak a language, has a lot to do with practice, dedication and talent, and a lot less with age. Most young children simply aren’t able to practise in an organised way or devise their own excercises. Their only advantage is they are not ashamed to play out of key yet.

      So yeah, you’ll prove him wrong. Have fun learning to play. :-)

  • Anonymous

    It’s interesting how many counterexamples you can find to this. After about 3 months of studying Spanish, I could pick up a Spanish sports newspaper and pretty much understand it. I can also get a fairly good conversation going, and understand what the person is talking about.

    A 3 month old baby cannot do that.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Well said.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Well said.

  • Anonymous

    It’s interesting how many counterexamples you can find to this. After about 3 months of studying Spanish, I could pick up a Spanish sports newspaper and pretty much understand it. I can also get a fairly good conversation going, and understand what the person is talking about.

    A 3 month old baby cannot do that.

  • Jeff Winchell

    I don’t know which people said what, but from reading what the very best say about child learning, the development of the brain and how it acts is quite different in a pre-schooler. None of these top scholars would say that adults can’t learn or when they apply themselves, don’t learn more efficiently.

    Real researchers actually limit what they say and its applicability. Lesser mortals make unsupported extrapolations.

    So, what do the researchers agree on:
    Babies recognize every possible sound and start to rapidly lose the ability to discern different language phonemes EXCEPT the ones they hear everyday, at around 6 months old. This doesn’t mean someone who has a good ear, or who is highly motivated, can’t hear the same differences, it is just less likely and it takes more work. The 6 month old does it with ZERO effort.

    The researchers also agree that preschoolers require no special grammar instructions. The way that their brains are at this age, means they can INFER grammar merely by being in conversations with fluent speakers. Sometime after the age of 5, their brain has changed, and they have to learn grammar pretty much like every older kid or adult has too.

    Researchers have also looked at the brain and found that preschoolers who are learning more than one language simultaneously keep both languages in the same part of the brain. There is a hypothesis that this takes less effort to switch between languages when they are in the same part of the brain.

    Beyond that, I haven’t seen any research that clearly shows differences between preschoolers and older learners.

    Of course, people can very likely achieve whatever they want if they apply themselves. Of course, learning a language like a baby does, takes longer than it does for an adult learning a new language. But that assumes the adult will keep trying, because it DOES take effort. It does NOT take effort for a 3 year old to learn and speak 2, 3 or more languages – it only takes the need for them to do so .

    I personally don’t care if my 3 and 5 year old wind up studying or speaking as many languages as I do/have. I only care that they are fluent in their parents native languages. And yes, my 3 year old’s pronunciation of English is FAR better than the vast majority of German adults here, despite their taking 10 years of English. That is only because of the work I do to provide her with a need at this critical age in her brain’s development.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I’d mostly agree with those conclusions, but the problem is how they are presented to the public at large. I am not a linguist myself and don’t read papers, but media coverage of linguists’ conclusions leads me terribly disappointed. The video I’ve linked to here of stupid comments in a situation (TED) you come to expect the person to be presenting useful and well researched information is terribly damaging. I guarantee you this linguist has done a terrible disservice to adult language learners at large, despite her interesting research relevant to babies.

      The fact that it takes effort for an adult is no news to me, but if an adult applies this effort then s/he an do a lot more than a child could in some cirumstances.

      The thing that annoys me about child learning reserach is how the research is presented beyond scientific curiosity. It does nobody any good to “prove” that children are better learners. Children simply don’t care and adults will get discouraged by the advice. And it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. I have many many people who tell me the reason they can’t learn is because “they heard somewhere” that adults can’t learn a language.

      It’s not just a scientist’s responsibility to carry out interesting research, but to present that research to the world in the most efficient way possible. More research like that I linked to needs to be done because too much of the public is believing in something that isn’t true.

      • Jeff Winchell

        “It does nobody any good to ‘prove’ that children are better learners. Children simply don’t care”

        I can personally attest to how little kids care about the theories of adults, even of their parents.

  • David Burlison

    Well done Travel site-very informative..unique subject.
     
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  • David Burlison

    Well done Travel site-very informative..unique subject.
     
    Travel safe- WORLD TRAVEL UPDATES-FOREIGN TRAVEL GUIDE:

    http://www.travelaskthelocals.yolasite.com
     
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  • Anonymous

    I don’t think I disagree that adults can learn just as fast — or faster — than children, but I still maintain that children are much more skilled at accent formation, which is how the majority of people judge spoken language skills.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      As someone said in another comment, the separating factor is EFFORT. Children require less effort than adults. There is a huge difference here. Skill and effort are not the same thing. An adult CAN reach a convincing accent if he works hard enough and does it right. He has more bias for his mother tongue than a child has.

      But more effort required does not equal less skill and less ability to reach it.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      As someone said in another comment, the separating factor is EFFORT. Children require less effort than adults. There is a huge difference here. Skill and effort are not the same thing. An adult CAN reach a convincing accent if he works hard enough and does it right. He has more bias for his mother tongue than a child has.

      But more effort required does not equal less skill and less ability to reach it.

    • http://englishharmony.com Robby Kukurs

      Personally I wouldn’t put so much emphasis on accent elimination as far as one can speak fluently. I think this stereotype originates from a misplaced assumption that near-native level of proper pronunciation is directly linked to fluency in that language. While majority beginner language students would indeed have strong accent, I think this premise can’t be reversed and we can’t claim that all fluent speakers would necessarily have done away with their accent. 

      I still have a fair bit of accent left after years of living in an English speaking country and sometimes I come across people judging my English skills by my accent. It doesn’t concern me any more though; after a few moments people realize they can communicate with me with ease and the accent part becomes irrelevant.

      Yet I think many language learners are pressurised into learning near-native level of pronunciation while they should rather be focusing on developing spoken fluency in general. I’m not saying pronunciation isn’t important, my point is – it’s not a crucial element of a language fluency.

      • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

        Well said – people are so obsessed with native accents before they can even speak fluently. It’s putting the cart before the horse. Native accents are “nice” but usually make very little difference other than impressing people, but once you are high level fluent you CAN work on them ;)

        If if one decided not to, this doesn’t detract from what they CAN achieve. Accent reduction really is such a minor insignificant thing when it comes to communication abilities, once your accent isn’t *very* strong any more.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Wow, that’s so cool thanks Judy!! :D

  • http://www.budgettraveladventures.com/ Jeremy Branham

    Left my comments on Google+ so don’t want to duplicate them here.  I think kids learn languages faster because at a young age, they learn EVERYTHING faster.  With young kids, it is amazing how much they pick up on EVERYTHING when they are young.  And here’s the key – they don’t know how to study.  They just live in an environment that is conducive to learning.

    As we become adults, we learn by studying rather than immersing ourselves in an environment.  Maybe the lesson to take from this is this – Maybe adults can learn but the methods we use to do so are wrong.  This may go far beyond languages as well but it seems from your experience and my observations from my kids that immersion and the right environment are far more important than materials, books, and studying (not that these things don’t matter – just the emphasis we put on them as head knowledge seems to be more important than experience).

    Another example of this is college. What learn all this stuff in books and in classes on many different subjects to earn our degree even though we lack the practical experience. And then when we get jobs, we throw away most of what we learned because our experience in the real world shows us how things really work. And for many people (not all), most of the stuff we learned in classrooms won’t be applied in the real world. We just don’t use it. Again, books and studying are emphasized when experience is the better teacher.

    And just one more thought on this.  Many years ago, people memorized entire books and it seems the capacity of their minds were much bigger than today.  Many of those people couldn’t read or write so oral tradition was the only way to pass on knowledge.  Maybe the way we study and do things now limits us rather than makes us smarter.

  • http://www.budgettraveladventures.com/ Jeremy Branham

    Left my comments on Google+ so don’t want to duplicate them here.  I think kids learn languages faster because at a young age, they learn EVERYTHING faster.  With young kids, it is amazing how much they pick up on EVERYTHING when they are young.  And here’s the key – they don’t know how to study.  They just live in an environment that is conducive to learning.

    As we become adults, we learn by studying rather than immersing ourselves in an environment.  Maybe the lesson to take from this is this – Maybe adults can learn but the methods we use to do so are wrong.  This may go far beyond languages as well but it seems from your experience and my observations from my kids that immersion and the right environment are far more important than materials, books, and studying (not that these things don’t matter – just the emphasis we put on them as head knowledge seems to be more important than experience).

    Another example of this is college. What learn all this stuff in books and in classes on many different subjects to earn our degree even though we lack the practical experience. And then when we get jobs, we throw away most of what we learned because our experience in the real world shows us how things really work. And for many people (not all), most of the stuff we learned in classrooms won’t be applied in the real world. We just don’t use it. Again, books and studying are emphasized when experience is the better teacher.

    And just one more thought on this.  Many years ago, people memorized entire books and it seems the capacity of their minds were much bigger than today.  Many of those people couldn’t read or write so oral tradition was the only way to pass on knowledge.  Maybe the way we study and do things now limits us rather than makes us smarter.

  • http://www.budgettraveladventures.com/ Jeremy Branham

    Left my comments on Google+ so don’t want to duplicate them here.  I think kids learn languages faster because at a young age, they learn EVERYTHING faster.  With young kids, it is amazing how much they pick up on EVERYTHING when they are young.  And here’s the key – they don’t know how to study.  They just live in an environment that is conducive to learning.

    As we become adults, we learn by studying rather than immersing ourselves in an environment.  Maybe the lesson to take from this is this – Maybe adults can learn but the methods we use to do so are wrong.  This may go far beyond languages as well but it seems from your experience and my observations from my kids that immersion and the right environment are far more important than materials, books, and studying (not that these things don’t matter – just the emphasis we put on them as head knowledge seems to be more important than experience).

    Another example of this is college. What learn all this stuff in books and in classes on many different subjects to earn our degree even though we lack the practical experience. And then when we get jobs, we throw away most of what we learned because our experience in the real world shows us how things really work. And for many people (not all), most of the stuff we learned in classrooms won’t be applied in the real world. We just don’t use it. Again, books and studying are emphasized when experience is the better teacher.

    And just one more thought on this.  Many years ago, people memorized entire books and it seems the capacity of their minds were much bigger than today.  Many of those people couldn’t read or write so oral tradition was the only way to pass on knowledge.  Maybe the way we study and do things now limits us rather than makes us smarter.

  • http://www.budgettraveladventures.com/ Jeremy Branham

    Left my comments on Google+ so don’t want to duplicate them here.  I think kids learn languages faster because at a young age, they learn EVERYTHING faster.  With young kids, it is amazing how much they pick up on EVERYTHING when they are young.  And here’s the key – they don’t know how to study.  They just live in an environment that is conducive to learning.

    As we become adults, we learn by studying rather than immersing ourselves in an environment.  Maybe the lesson to take from this is this – Maybe adults can learn but the methods we use to do so are wrong.  This may go far beyond languages as well but it seems from your experience and my observations from my kids that immersion and the right environment are far more important than materials, books, and studying (not that these things don’t matter – just the emphasis we put on them as head knowledge seems to be more important than experience).

    Another example of this is college. What learn all this stuff in books and in classes on many different subjects to earn our degree even though we lack the practical experience. And then when we get jobs, we throw away most of what we learned because our experience in the real world shows us how things really work. And for many people (not all), most of the stuff we learned in classrooms won’t be applied in the real world. We just don’t use it. Again, books and studying are emphasized when experience is the better teacher.

    And just one more thought on this.  Many years ago, people memorized entire books and it seems the capacity of their minds were much bigger than today.  Many of those people couldn’t read or write so oral tradition was the only way to pass on knowledge.  Maybe the way we study and do things now limits us rather than makes us smarter.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Kids don’t learn things “faster”, they learn things with less conscious effort. When adults apply that effort they can and WILL learn faster. I really don’t see how it makes sense to say kids learn faster. Me vs a 3-month / 1 year / 3 year old starting a new language from scratch – in 3 months who do you think can read a newspaper, discuss a complex subject etc. faster? Or against a 10 year old in an academic course for 3 months?
      There’s no competition! As an adult I have clear advantages and can use them. Bad methods clearly influence this as you say. However children COULD learn faster than me if they were in immersive environments – but it’s very hard to say that everything else is equal. There are too many variables to say one learns faster than the other.

      • http://www.budgettraveladventures.com/ Jeremy Branham

        Benny, little kids (ages 0 – 3) DO learn in immersive environments.  They can’t read so they have no other choice but to watch, learn, and imitate.  As others have said, kids don’t care about failure or how they look.  It’s so funny to watch a child sing, try to talk, and do many things – and fail.  Yet we laugh, admire, and encourage them. 

        I agree adults have a great capacity to learn that kids do.   However, there is no comparison.  If you’ve ever spent time with a child from the day are born until age 3 or so, it is astonishing the amount of things they can in that short amount of time.  At no other time in our lives we will ever learn as quickly as we do at that age.  If you’ve ever spent time daily with a child and just realize how much they grow and learn in that time it is amazing.

        With that said, I am not arguing with you about this.  My only point was to show that kids learn differently than adults due to a few things – their environment (being immersed) and a fear of failure.  If we do these same things as adults (which is what you urge in your language learning – immersion and not fearing failure and mistakes), then we can learn quickly as well.

        This isn’t to say kids are as smart as adults or have the capacity for learning that adults do but the methods they have for learning seem to be a lot better than the ones we tend to use.  Think how much more we could learn if we weren’t afraid to fail or we put ourselves out there completely.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.crompton Bill Crompton

    I started learning Dutch at age 23. I speak it better than most of the natives with a virtually flawless  Amsterdam accent, work as a local government official and am occasionally asked by colleagues to check their outgoing correspondence for errors.

    This without ever having had a formal lesson in the language…

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Another real world example to add to the pile of evidence against the myths, thanks! ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.crompton Bill Crompton

    I started learning Dutch at age 23. I speak it better than most of the natives with a virtually flawless  Amsterdam accent, work as a local government official and am occasionally asked by colleagues to check their outgoing correspondence for errors.

    This without ever having had a formal lesson in the language…

  • David J

    Great post. I’m glad people who are widely read such as yourself are speaking out against this nonsense. This idea that only children can learn languages is so widely accepted as scientifically accepted fact, that it’s hard for me (as a single individual), to convince others that it simply isn’t true! Hopefully with more linguists with sense publishing articles, along with stories such as yours published on the web, this trend will be reversed!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Yes, thanks for confirming – so many linguists seem to think I’m making this up when I say that a lot of the general population believe in the cut-off-age myth! All I know is that it’s one of THE biggest excuses I hear for why people “can’t” learn a language. The delusion is out there and we need to work to destroy it.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Research about late first language acquisition may have been what helped to propagate that myth. They said that 14 was the cut-off age for first language acquisition, and to me that would make more or less sense. But it’s still totally irrelevant to second-language acquisition since the rules and context are completely different.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Well said – adults get ahead of themselves and want everything at once. I’ve found that working with what I’ve got and using it immediately helps me progress so much more. I accept that I can’t debate serious topics on week one, and too many adults think that means they aren’t “ready” to speak at all.

  • William Crawford

    Yeah, I really wish people would stop spreading that tripe.

    I started learning Japanese at 30.  At that point, I definitely could not hear the difference between ‘tsu’ and ‘su’, like everyone else who doesn’t know any Japanese.  Today, I can hear it very well.

    Chinese is supposed to have sounds like this, too, but after learning to hear the Japanese sounds, I no longer believe the Chinese ones are impossible, either.

  • http://www.janafadness.com Jana Fadness

    I’m glad to see some researchers out there are disputing this myth! It
    really is a myth that far too many people are convinced is true. What’s
    annoying is that I can’t even change their minds by using myself as an
    example! I’m fluent in two foreign languages (Japanese and French) that I
    started learning as a teenager. But when people find this out, they
    just dismiss it by saying I must have a “gift” for languages! So I’m
    glad people like you are out there spreading the message that actually,
    anyone can learn a language. I hope this website will continue to grow
    and inspire more people. :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks Jana! We need to show those people mountains of evidence apparently. Eventually when they meet enough adults successfully learning languages they’ll have to give up on their “genius”/”gift” explanations and face the truth!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks Jana! We need to show those people mountains of evidence apparently. Eventually when they meet enough adults successfully learning languages they’ll have to give up on their “genius”/”gift” explanations and face the truth!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks Jana! We need to show those people mountains of evidence apparently. Eventually when they meet enough adults successfully learning languages they’ll have to give up on their “genius”/”gift” explanations and face the truth!

  • http://www.janafadness.com Jana Fadness

    I’m glad to see some researchers out there are disputing this myth! It
    really is a myth that far too many people are convinced is true. What’s
    annoying is that I can’t even change their minds by using myself as an
    example! I’m fluent in two foreign languages (Japanese and French) that I
    started learning as a teenager. But when people find this out, they
    just dismiss it by saying I must have a “gift” for languages! So I’m
    glad people like you are out there spreading the message that actually,
    anyone can learn a language. I hope this website will continue to grow
    and inspire more people. :)

  • http://www.janafadness.com Jana Fadness

    I’m glad to see some researchers out there are disputing this myth! It
    really is a myth that far too many people are convinced is true. What’s
    annoying is that I can’t even change their minds by using myself as an
    example! I’m fluent in two foreign languages (Japanese and French) that I
    started learning as a teenager. But when people find this out, they
    just dismiss it by saying I must have a “gift” for languages! So I’m
    glad people like you are out there spreading the message that actually,
    anyone can learn a language. I hope this website will continue to grow
    and inspire more people. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeffrey-Donovan/702432288 Jeffrey Donovan

    I just finished reading all the comments.  I tried taking a Spanish class when I was 26 and got an F.  Then when I was 29 I really started seriously immersing myself in the language.  I retook that Spanish class when I was 30 and got an A.  I’m now 31 and  I am able to learn and remember new words much faster now than when I was in my 20’s.  The difference seems like night and day.

    EFFORT has been talked about and I agree that adults can learn better than children with enough EFFORT.  .  I think weightlifting is a pretty good analogy.  Without weightlifting, adults will naturally get weaker and weaker.  But with with weightlifting adults can get stronger and stronger.

    There’s more that I want to say to complete that analogy, but I need to put more thought into how to phrase it.  Anyway, Benny is doing a very good job without me.  Go Benny!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks Jeffrey! :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks Jeffrey! :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks Jeffrey! :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yes, the first language acquisition age cut off is interesting, but totally irrelevant to non-linguists to be frank. That kind of data shouldn’t be released with vague interpretations and associations attached to it by the media – too many people might not understand the difference or infer that it must be the same for second language acquisition…

    Glad Krashen is on my side too on this :-P

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    To be frank you haven’t adapted your learning process enough to how your requirements have changed with time. And you also clearly didn’t work to maintain your languages. Read other comments here from people older than you who have just started to learn a language and are doing a great job.

    The good news is that if you changed your approach slightly you could be back to your age 25 skills in no time. Especially considering you’ve done the work already.

    Your last sentence is quite silly – I can only reply with this, in similar phrasing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAsp4rn9QnM

  • http://leakygrammar.com Gavin

    Hey Benny, I can see why you reacted to this TED talk so strongly.  You have learned several languages successfully and feel that what this researcher was saying denied you’re own, my own, and several other people’s experience on this blog.  Your comments on the TED site seem a bit more diplomatic than they do in your post, but you have raised a serious point here to the legitimacy of research in this area and I can see why you’re saying what you’re saying. 

    I’m not sure if you wrote this because you believe the research is a bunch of crap or you just wanted to stir the pot a bit.  But if you felt this way after watching her presentation, then I can see why you wrote what you did.  But if you read the article, you would see the tons of qualifications around the statements she made.  This wasn’t a definitive study but one attempt to look into how human minds process language as children, not how they ‘develop’ language.  This was a case study, not a longitudinal study, or in other words, it wasn’t a study looking at development over time. 

    If you look at her work, then you would see the qualifications she made, you could see that the conclusions you drew would be tough to draw from what she wrote, she simply wasn’t arguing that.  But what’s unfortunate is that if you wanted to read it you would have to buy it off some journal’s website for some ridiculous amount of cash. 

    The access the public (or those not currently registered for classes at some recognized institution) has to scientific research sucks, the whole paying, gate keeping system  for research articles prevents people from finding things out for themselves and it needs to change.

     From your comments on TED, I can see your argument is mainly against her graph on the critical period hypothesis.  Being skeptical of evidence that seems contradictory to our experience is a very healthy approach to take in general but arguing against it from watching one researcher’s overzealous TED presentation (I’m not sure if that’s a requirement for TED or not:)) and then citing an article that’s really interesting but whose last paragraph showcases the very qualifying language used in Dr. Kuhl’s research that you find to be a compilation of ‘myths’ maybe taking it a bit too far. 

    Oh man, this is is really long, didn’t mean to write some long rambling comment but oh well.  I just want you to know that I’m not just a random internet surfer who randomly found your site and wants to tell you how you don’t understand the research or whatever, because your personal experience is some of the best research out there.  I’ve been reading your blog for a while and you are admirably arguing a perspective that I agree with wholeheartedly, that language can be learned fluently at any age.  To be honest, what needs to be thrown out is not necessarily the critical period hypothesis but this idea of some ideal native speaker who we all should be desperately trying to reach.

    But this was a great post! I saw that TED talk before but if you hadn’t voiced your opinion on it I never would have looked into it and mulled it over so much, maybe a bit too much, haha.  Keep up the awesome work Benny.  And hope to see you on TED soon!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I wrote my comment on TED just after I saw the video. I found it quite annoying, but shrugged it off.

      The problem is that I’ve had months of people sending me to that video to “prove” that they can’t learn a language and it’s been boiling my blood. Just ranting about it wouldn’t have done much good, so now I can rant AND provide contrary evidence. ;)

      I’m not interested in needlessly “stirring the pot”. The message in this post needs to spread, and until I saw this research linked I felt like linguists were not helping me in trying to encourage adult language learners.

      That video is damaging the language learning community – lay people (like myself) who have little interest in reading through papers have to rely on what the researchers summarise to us, and her summary leaves way too much to be desired. She should have just stuck to talking about babies.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. If I have my way then in a few years I’ll be up on that stage doing damage control and encouraging hopefully millions of adults – fingers crossed!

      • eliponcelas

        I also agree that language learning can take place at any age. However, I also think -and there is also evidence for that!- that the brain is more plastic as a child, and the plasticity declines as the person gets older. That maybe the reason why foreign speakers can´t often get rid of their accent, even if they have lived in English speaking countries for years or even decades.
        As a Spanish child I learnt virtually no English at school, then at the age of 19 I began to watch undubbed movies and my English improved by heaps and bounds. Now at 21 I don´t percieve English as foreign as my ear is so used to it, but I sometimes have difficulty when it comes to producing it -speaking and/writing- and my accent is still very thick which makes me really embarrassed.
        By the way did anybody notice that I English is not my first language?

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          The reason SOME people can’t get rid of their accent is because they don’t try intentionally. It’s just pure exposure, no focused accent reduction. 4 or 40 years of not trying shouldn’t necessarily produce results ;)

          Work hard to reduce aspects that make you sound Spanish and you can and will pass off as a native eventually :)

      • eliponcelas

        I also agree that language learning can take place at any age. However, I also think -and there is also evidence for that!- that the brain is more plastic as a child, and the plasticity declines as the person gets older. That maybe the reason why foreign speakers can´t often get rid of their accent, even if they have lived in English speaking countries for years or even decades.
        As a Spanish child I learnt virtually no English at school, then at the age of 19 I began to watch undubbed movies and my English improved by heaps and bounds. Now at 21 I don´t percieve English as foreign as my ear is so used to it, but I sometimes have difficulty when it comes to producing it -speaking and/writing- and my accent is still very thick which makes me really embarrassed.
        By the way did anybody notice that I English is not my first language?

      • eliponcelas

        I also agree that language learning can take place at any age. However, I also think -and there is also evidence for that!- that the brain is more plastic as a child, and the plasticity declines as the person gets older. That maybe the reason why foreign speakers can´t often get rid of their accent, even if they have lived in English speaking countries for years or even decades.
        As a Spanish child I learnt virtually no English at school, then at the age of 19 I began to watch undubbed movies and my English improved by heaps and bounds. Now at 21 I don´t percieve English as foreign as my ear is so used to it, but I sometimes have difficulty when it comes to producing it -speaking and/writing- and my accent is still very thick which makes me really embarrassed.
        By the way did anybody notice that I English is not my first language?

      • eliponcelas

        I also agree that language learning can take place at any age. However, I also think -and there is also evidence for that!- that the brain is more plastic as a child, and the plasticity declines as the person gets older. That maybe the reason why foreign speakers can´t often get rid of their accent, even if they have lived in English speaking countries for years or even decades.
        As a Spanish child I learnt virtually no English at school, then at the age of 19 I began to watch undubbed movies and my English improved by heaps and bounds. Now at 21 I don´t percieve English as foreign as my ear is so used to it, but I sometimes have difficulty when it comes to producing it -speaking and/writing- and my accent is still very thick which makes me really embarrassed.
        By the way did anybody notice that I English is not my first language?

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    With the wrong attitude I definitely don’t expect everyone to succeed. Attitude and approach are what hold people back – this has been my experience from talking to thousands of successful and unsuccessful language learners in depth over the last 8 years.

    Saying that successful people are “exceptions to the rule” is a defeatist position that leads no room for discussion. That argument will be harder and harder to cling on to as you see more “exceptions” raising their heads…

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    It took me 2 days to learn how to roll my ‘r’ at age 21. I just needed it explained to me right and to practise diligently. How long does it take a baby to roll his/her ‘r’? 6 months? A year? There’s no comparison.

    My label for the article stands. Your example just gives me extra fuel to demonstrate where adults come out on top.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    It took me 2 days to learn how to roll my ‘r’ at age 21. I just needed it explained to me right and to practise diligently. How long does it take a baby to roll his/her ‘r’? 6 months? A year? There’s no comparison.

    My label for the article stands. Your example just gives me extra fuel to demonstrate where adults come out on top.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    It took me 2 days to learn how to roll my ‘r’ at age 21. I just needed it explained to me right and to practise diligently. How long does it take a baby to roll his/her ‘r’? 6 months? A year? There’s no comparison.

    My label for the article stands. Your example just gives me extra fuel to demonstrate where adults come out on top.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Amunt Valencia! After almost 9 years travelling in total, it still remains my favourite city in the world ;)

  • Mike

    So after the age of ONE  I am unable to distinguish foreign sounds? In Germany school usually starts around the age of six. And from grade 1 to 4 the exposure to a foreign language is  very often close to zero. So you’ll get your first lessons in a foreign language around the age of ten.  And you’ll still learn something.  I learned a lot during my exchange year in the U.S. But I was 24 then… There is no cut-off date

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      There are jumps in logic in her reasoning as I see it. It’s from babies turning their heads to react to different sounds at different ages. Saying “turning head” = “distinguishing sounds” makes sense, but continuing from that to say that after they stop turning their heads, they have passed some magic number age that means they can’t learn with a *tiny* bit more effort is where I start to disagree with her summary.

      I don’t doubt certain advantages infants have, but I also don’t doubt OTHER important advantages that non-infants have that can easily compensate when nourished and encouraged.

  • Peter Sipes

    And for the biggest rebut of all time:

    The majesty and grandeur of Latin. For over 1,000 years people learned Latin in school—and most definitely not from infancy. Students were (and still are) expected to read works of extreme artistry and sophistication in the target language. (Though I confess that the ugly hobgoblin of translation all to often rears its head in modern classrooms. I should cook up a video of me teaching Latin in Latin.) Moreover, for many hundreds of years it was the language of the university in Europe. The whole of medieval and Renaissance literature written in Latin should have put the kibosh on the inability of older students to learn a second language to high degrees of proficiency. 

    While sensitive periods for facets of learning a language may exist, there is no reason they should hinder anyone. I hear about adults not being able to learn a second language and roll my eyes. Thomas More’s Utopia is a sophisticated piece of language written by a non-native speaker who never heard a native speaker.

    It’s effort, motivation and willingness more than anything. Benny has inspired me to pick up Ancient Greek in 3 months. My goal is to be able to read an unmodified text of Ancient Greek (with some dictionary support) by the end of September.

    Ναι, ἐγω γαρ οὐκετι παις την του τε Πλατωνος και του Ἡροδοτου γλοτταν μανθανω. δια τι ουκ;

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Nice addendum! :)
      Best of luck with Ancient Greek!!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    A critical period for learning a first language is totally irrelevant to a critical period for learning a second language. The context and situation is vastly different it’s stupid to compare them, or suggest one leads to another. I’d expect this from the media, but not a professional linguist who should know better.

    I’d sort of agree with your separation, but it’s just semantics. Learning is learning, and adults have to simply focus on how they learn better than they “acquire” and they’ll learn quicker and more efficiently. As you say, we’re better at it ;)

    • Roma

      As another linguistics student, I’d like to say that I agree (for the most part) with Paula. I myself have my own hypotheses regarding the neurological foundations of brain plasticity – but until I can prove anything, it will remain just that. 

      I would like to reiterate the emphasis that Paula made: the distinction between language “acquisition” versus language “learning”. It is not simply semantics.  I taught myself Hebrew to full and complete fluency including all of the nuances.  I will have to assume you have done the same in each of the languages you speak.  I will not deny that there MUST have been elements that were unconsious (and I find that the most fascinating), but for the most part this is conscious learning.   The real question that generative linguistics deals with is what mechanism is this? And IS this learning mechanism the same as learning anything else?

      My own anecdotal evidence would be inclined to side with you, but anecdotal evidence is not a science and certainly doesn’t prove anything *except* that language can be learned. Which is fine.  In fact, there is good reason to explain why adults may be and are surprisingly efficient at breaking down and rebuilding the logical grammatical patterns of languages: our cognitive and reasoning faculties ARE more developed.  But a child nevertheless learns all of this unconsciously.  By the time they are school age, a child has mastered his language.  Bear in mind that mastery has little to do with the mechanics of “proper” grammar (such as the use of “who” vs “whom”) rather with the mechanics of spoken native language. Neither does it have anything to do with vocabulary acquisition which takes place over the course of his or her life and once again, adults are far more capable (cognitively) of memorizing and applying new words.  All of this the child has done with little more effort than being spoken to and played with.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    A critical period for learning a first language is totally irrelevant to a critical period for learning a second language. The context and situation is vastly different it’s stupid to compare them, or suggest one leads to another. I’d expect this from the media, but not a professional linguist who should know better.

    I’d sort of agree with your separation, but it’s just semantics. Learning is learning, and adults have to simply focus on how they learn better than they “acquire” and they’ll learn quicker and more efficiently. As you say, we’re better at it ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    At least I’m doing something. Whining about people achieves nothing. Try to help instead of sitting on the sidelines criticising.

    • Liam

       I don’t sit on the sidelines, you jump to so many conclusions and fire them off to attack people. When I write about the stupidity of so many peoples use of Pareto in arguments,  I will be sure to link to you as an example and I will send you a email with a link to the article.  You will be free to comment unrestricted.

      Apart from not doing anything I am quite actively taking action against the damage caused so many who are “a least doing something” , “at least doing something” is not an excuse for making things worse is it?

      If possible I would like to help people (as many as I can) be free thinkers, and inoculate them against rhetoric,  unspeak and being marketed into an opinion.  In reality it is a big ask don’t you think?

      • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

        Liam, your only contribution on this blog *many times* has been to bitch and whine about me. Can’t we just presume as default that you think I’m wrong about everything in the world? No need to keep reminding me of it, it’s tediuous.

        Stomping around the Internet is not contributing. Labelling yourself as a freethinker for fighting a guy encouraging language learning is delusional.

        Link to me all you like, but please don’t email me. I hear from you enough as it is. I get notified of incoming links automatically.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I find feral children research totally irrelevant to adults who already speak a language natively learning a second one. There is simply no comparison.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Embracing people’s self delusion achieves nothing – I’m making progress by pointing out their laziness. I won’t change humanity, but I damn well will change a tiny percentage of it.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Nobody’s mind becomes “ridged”. They just need to adapt to a new learning strategy.

  • TraVelle Natural

    This is a very interesting post! Glad to know adult language leaners are not screwed.

  • Anonymous

     Thanks Benny, I am a totally new reader and I very much agree with you on this one.  I speak my native Swedish and then English, French and Spanish.  I feel that more than age, the number of languages you already speak is a factor in how fast you learn a language.  If you speak more than one language the confidence is there that you can learn another and there are the associations with known languages that makes retention in learning of other languages either.  I am not sure if there is science backing this up but it has definitely been my experience. 

    I’m highly impressed with your work.  I’ll be back!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      There probably is, but I focus on encouraging people their first foreign language on the blog so I won’t be focusing much on it, I’m sure it’s out there though :)

      Glad you are enjoying the site!

      • http://culturemutt.com/ Bjorn Karlman

        Thanks for the reply.  I like the focus on the first foreign language.  I am really hoping to learn Mandarin over the next few years… how much progress have you seen people make with a language that is that demanding in 3 months?  I am guessing you can do quite well given immersion, some discipline and a lot of determination..

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Agreed. Khatzumoto’s approach is very different to mine, but a really clever alternative to solving the ‘effort’ issue. What you say about targets like that are so true and ultimately not productive.

  • http://twitter.com/aarongmyers Aaron G Myers

    Keep fighting the good fight Benny!  Too many learners are discouraged enough. They don’t need this kind of misinformation to make it worse.  Anyone, anytime can learn another language!

  • Amelie Premont

    Oh God, that woman just made all linguists look like retards. As if no one realised that adults can learn a second language and achieve native-like levels. I really hope that she only messed up in the presentation and that she doesn’t think what she said…

    First, the graph. Of course no linguist disputes this graph if you present it right. What this graph actually shows, is that adults can’t learn a new language the way childrens do, wich is effortlessly, by being only exposed to it. Which is basically what you say in your blog, an adult should’nt expect to become fluent in a language by simply watching TV, they need to put effort into it. Socialisation will do a great deal to reach fluency, but to attain native-like levels, some extra work will need to be done (you mentioned some specific pronunciation training for your ‘r’ in spanish, a child would’nt need that).

    Secondly, the new sounds learning. The research that this woman did was actually a breakthrough in the field. She showed that babies could differentiate any sound from any language, even if they have never been exposed to it. Which is true adults can’t do. If you test any average person and make them listen to completly unfamiliar sounds, they will have a hard time discerning them. At first. The time it takes to their brain to get familiarised with them. Which, most of the time, is not that long.

    Thank you for your blog, it is extremely interesting to read. Like you, I hope linguists in general will improve their vulgarisation skills because from what I read here, it is really not that good…

  • Jeff Winchell

    Hey Benny,
    I found this summary (http://www.zompist.com/whylang.html) of why typical kids learn languages easier than typical adults, which doesn’t get into FMRI research about the brains of kids under 5:

    “Innate abilities aside, children have a number of powerful
    advantages:

    1) They can devote almost their full time to it. Adults consider half an hour’s study
    a day to be onerous.2) Their motivation is intense. Adults rarely have to spend much of their time in the
    company of people they need to talk to but can’t; children can get very little of
    what they want without learning language(s).3) Their peers are nastier. Embarrassment is a prime motivating factor for human
    beings (I owe this insight to Marvin Minsky’s The Society of Mind, but it was most memorably
    expressed by David Berlinski (in Black Mischief, p. 129), who noted that of all emotions, from rage to
    depression to first love, only embarrassment can recur, decades later, with its full
    original intensity). Dealing with a French waiter is nothing compared with the
    vicious reception in store for a child who speaks funny.”
    So maybe you can use this to turn the subject on its head and show adults, who want to learn other languages, why they too can learn as easy as kids. Your own adventures are examples of the first two points. I realize that you don’t like to put yourself in situations like number 3, but living in a foreign country, I find that even as an adult, I get #3 from time to time. Particularly at work. I don’t like it, but I suppose it is good for me.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I’m not confusing anything; I said it doesn’t exist. But I agree with you that the Feral children’s critical period is what influences the general population thinking this applies to a second language.

    Linguists have to realize that the way they present information to the media can get out of control. The reputable research on Feral children has lead to a general “unspoken truth” about a cut off age for any kind of language learning unfortunately.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Yawn… another day, another elitist academic who thinks a “layperson” with experience doesn’t deserve to share his thoughts.

    A linguist with no experience or credentials whatsoever in adult second language acquisition has no place to make hand-waving statements about said adults’ limitations. This seems nothing but logical to me. Stick to your field of specialisation.

    It’s not anti-intellectualism, it’s anti-I-study-something-vaguely-related-so-I-can-tell-you-how-it-is-ism. It’s so incredibly narrow minded of you to compare my encouraging of adult language learners, and dismissal of irrelevant information from people who don’t know what they are talking about, to creationism and fear of science. What absolute waffle.

    I have a background in engineering, which is science applied to the real world, and I take applicable science very seriously. I am not interested in getting lectured by people who think my pragmatism is an attack on academia.

    I discovered the TED talk on the linguistic genius of babies by someone forwarding it to me FEELING DISHEARTENED. So I am not dreaming up the reaction. There is important responsibility in spreading a message through the media, how you prepare it, and predicting how people will react to it.

    Seriously, these attacks on someone encouraging language learning and dismissing unscientific claims about adult limitations, gives the community of linguists who should be impartial scientists, a bad name.

    And yes, I AM dismissing this rubbish “with absolutely no academic credentials or serious research to speak of”. I am not a linguist or language scientist. I only have real world experience, both my own and my observations of my students and thousands of other learners, and that is what I will blog about.

  • PatrickInBeijing

    Great article. I have had a student who was 71 and illiterate in his native language (Spanish). He had worked in the fields for his whole life. He was studying in my class and reading Shakespeare and Marx on his own. He was a wonderful student, and nobody ever told him he was too old to learn. I am 60, and still learning Chinese. I really wonder where people come up with these bizarre ideas! Even more disheartening is that they are passed off as science. Terrible!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jhalverson4 Jean Halverson

    I’m 47 years old and in University. I have learned German, Russian, and now am learning French in the University programs. The vast majority of my classmates are in their 20s, but the only place where they have an edge on me is the speed at which they memorize vocabulary(and those damned cases in Russian).
    What hinders all of us is that we are not living in the country where our language of choice is spoken. Those students who have skype friendships with native speakers do the best, hands down. This is difficult to manage for many of us due to the time differences however.

  • languagepotato

    i strongly agree with you benny.
    the only reason why kids are supposedly ‘better’ at learning language is because in general kids are surrounded more with the language they’re learning. if i put a 25 year old russian who doesn’t speak english in france, i’m pretty sure he would learn more french in a year than a french baby would.

  • lapsang

    I feel there are two separate issues here:

    1) Misinterpreting what she is saying

    2) Disagreeing with what she is saying

    Patricia Kuhl is very well-respected, and what she is saying is not that controversial. In fact, Alison Gopnik’s research (while not specifically about language) seems to agree with Kuhl’s findings. Kuhl and Gopnik are interested in how babies learn. Gopnik advances that a baby’s brain can perform Beysian statistics-unconciously. This is developmentally vital. It is perhaps what makes us unique as human. Gopnik applies this to other types of learning. Kuhl is saying this is how we learn our native language so well. She is also advocating that the brain can keep separate statistics for each language.

    I have watched Kuhl’s talk several times and never found it confusing. I think she does, however, throw out sentences that can be misconstrued. She says “adults can’t decipher sounds outside their language”. You may be understanding her to say that you, Benny, can’t understand tonal languages. That’s not what she means. What she does mean is that you had to put some effort in to figuring them out. (She tries to demonstrate this with the kids learning the Chinese phonemes effortlessly. They hear all the differences in language, whether they want to or not–adults don’t.)

    Consider these examples:

    If I spoke English with tones, you may think I was silly, but ultimately your brain does not find these differences important—they aren’t *statistically* important. In fact, if you didn’t know tonal languages existed, you would probably either not “hear” the difference at all, or would not be able to understand how meaning is coded in such a way.

    If I started, however, to change the way I pronounced -s in plurals such that I said “boothz” instead of “booths” and “cars” instead of “carz” you would find it really amiss. No native speaker would interchange vocalized and non-vocalized /s/ sounds, despite not learning which sound is used where. The reason you know which is correct, is again because of your ability to take statistics, and English has assigned the two sounds (s) and (z) as a plural morpheme to specific nouns—which you have learned as a child. (Think about how you know which “th” sound to use! Oy!)

    Now, if someone takes the time to learn about tones, they can learn to identify them and use them. She doesn’t dispute that. But your book of statistics for this new linguistic technique is empty. It is going to take you a long time to fill it up in order to be near-native, because your brain is now wired in such a way that you must actually exert effort to learn this stuff. (see neural plasticity, and pre-frontal cortex development) As Alison Gopnik says, babies are wired to be explorers, adults are wired to be specialists. (One is not inherently better than the other.)

    This is where your technique is probably superior to most. Your methods effectively fill your statistics book as quickly (and completely) as possible. I would say that this is most likely why Krashen’s Input Hypothesis obviously has some traction. The input is what helps you to take the statistics–i.e. learn and become comfortable with the language.

    I feel that anyone who became dismayed at this TEDtalk did not understand it, because I honestly think she would agree with a lot of your techniques.

    That said, I don’t know what to say if you disagree with all that, as you seem to debate the idea of the critical period. There is so much research being done on neural plasticity, that I’m not sure what there is to dispute. As others mentioned, the first-language critical period is actually not really debated. This is the slide that she shows at the beginning (note that it says “native language” in the bottom left corner of the slide). There is other research on the brain that shows how other skills are lost over time, others where new ones are learned. They’ve even shown how a lack of touch affects brain development.

    I hope this helps anyone who feels upset with Kuhl’s research to take a step back and realize that she is on your side. She is saying that we can’t “learn like a baby does” — it’s biologically impossible. Instead, it’s wise to continue to use methods advocated here and harness the power that the adult mind has. They are different skills. Companies like Rosetta Stone and others have pushed this “learn like a baby” nonsense, and they are the real culprits. And honestly, learn like a baby? What? That’s not exactly a great promise considering how long it takes them. Adults should never be threatened by children–just learn to be outgoing like them and don’t care about people judging your skills.

    Good luck.

  • lapsang

    I feel there are two separate issues here:

    1) Misinterpreting what she is saying

    2) Disagreeing with what she is saying

    Patricia Kuhl is very well-respected, and what she is saying is not that controversial. In fact, Alison Gopnik’s research (while not specifically about language) seems to agree with Kuhl’s findings. Kuhl and Gopnik are interested in how babies learn. Gopnik advances that a baby’s brain can perform Beysian statistics-unconciously. This is developmentally vital. It is perhaps what makes us unique as human. Gopnik applies this to other types of learning. Kuhl is saying this is how we learn our native language so well. She is also advocating that the brain can keep separate statistics for each language.

    I have watched Kuhl’s talk several times and never found it confusing. I think she does, however, throw out sentences that can be misconstrued. She says “adults can’t decipher sounds outside their language”. You may be understanding her to say that you, Benny, can’t understand tonal languages. That’s not what she means. What she does mean is that you had to put some effort in to figuring them out. (She tries to demonstrate this with the kids learning the Chinese phonemes effortlessly. They hear all the differences in language, whether they want to or not–adults don’t.)

    Consider these examples:

    If I spoke English with tones, you may think I was silly, but ultimately your brain does not find these differences important—they aren’t *statistically* important. In fact, if you didn’t know tonal languages existed, you would probably either not “hear” the difference at all, or would not be able to understand how meaning is coded in such a way.

    If I started, however, to change the way I pronounced -s in plurals such that I said “boothz” instead of “booths” and “cars” instead of “carz” you would find it really amiss. No native speaker would interchange vocalized and non-vocalized /s/ sounds, despite not learning which sound is used where. The reason you know which is correct, is again because of your ability to take statistics, and English has assigned the two sounds (s) and (z) as a plural morpheme to specific nouns—which you have learned as a child. (Think about how you know which “th” sound to use! Oy!)

    Now, if someone takes the time to learn about tones, they can learn to identify them and use them. She doesn’t dispute that. But your book of statistics for this new linguistic technique is empty. It is going to take you a long time to fill it up in order to be near-native, because your brain is now wired in such a way that you must actually exert effort to learn this stuff. (see neural plasticity, and pre-frontal cortex development) As Alison Gopnik says, babies are wired to be explorers, adults are wired to be specialists. (One is not inherently better than the other.)

    This is where your technique is probably superior to most. Your methods effectively fill your statistics book as quickly (and completely) as possible. I would say that this is most likely why Krashen’s Input Hypothesis obviously has some traction. The input is what helps you to take the statistics–i.e. learn and become comfortable with the language.

    I feel that anyone who became dismayed at this TEDtalk did not understand it, because I honestly think she would agree with a lot of your techniques.

    That said, I don’t know what to say if you disagree with all that, as you seem to debate the idea of the critical period. There is so much research being done on neural plasticity, that I’m not sure what there is to dispute. As others mentioned, the first-language critical period is actually not really debated. This is the slide that she shows at the beginning (note that it says “native language” in the bottom left corner of the slide). There is other research on the brain that shows how other skills are lost over time, others where new ones are learned. They’ve even shown how a lack of touch affects brain development.

    I hope this helps anyone who feels upset with Kuhl’s research to take a step back and realize that she is on your side. She is saying that we can’t “learn like a baby does” — it’s biologically impossible. Instead, it’s wise to continue to use methods advocated here and harness the power that the adult mind has. They are different skills. Companies like Rosetta Stone and others have pushed this “learn like a baby” nonsense, and they are the real culprits. And honestly, learn like a baby? What? That’s not exactly a great promise considering how long it takes them. Adults should never be threatened by children–just learn to be outgoing like them and don’t care about people judging your skills.

    Good luck.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alexmhogan Alex Hogan

    Most people who learned a foreign language as a child were successful largely because they were surrounded by the language all the time. I started learning Spanish in the sixth-grade, but it was traditional class based learning where the teacher spend the majority of time speaking in English. I still remember lots of vocab, but unable to say much beyond “Yo quiero un cafe con leche por favor.”

  • Nicola Robinson

    I started learning Hungarian from scratch at age 30. I am now an advanced and fluent speaker who (sometimes) gets confused with a native. Although I think that if it had been only my second language I would have been far less motivated and confident to learn it. Also I didn’t buy all the talk about how difficult it was going to be.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Great job!! :)

  • Nicholas

    Whatever you say, babies are defenitely better learners than adults, they learn languages from scratch, and when I say “from stratch” they don’t have another language to base themselves on, whereas an adult always refers to the languages he knows when learning another language.

    It is IMPOSSIBLE for an adult to learn a language just by listening to it! no textbooks, no help, nothing, simply listening to things which are said around you : you can’t learn a language like this when you are an adult.

    “She doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about because she actually researches babies.” I assume you haven’t more clues than she does unless you have studied linguistics, which would impress me, since you would understand what she exactly means. “After some focused training, and sometimeseven just a few seconds of paying attention, and you’ll hear it. In some cases, it’s harder and takes a wee bit more time, but it’s definitely not impossible.” You have to train, babies haven’t. That’s the difference.

    Please, when speaking about linguistics, please read books first, instead of saying false things.

    • Liza Davis

      Common sense says the linguists are wrong. An adult’s brain KNOWS how to learn, and can become fluent in a language in less than 2 years with conventional immersion, having conversations FAR more advanced than any 12 year could even imagine in their own native language. And a baby’s fluency after 3 years of being exposed to their native language is much less in quantity or quality than an adult exposed to a foreign language – who is immersing themselves in their new language and using it from the beginning – after 6 months. But often scientists don’t believe reality with their eyes, unless it becomes part of a study. Whatever, I know for myself – when I have motivated myself to actively use my new Italian – at nearly 50 – I was having fairly complex conversations with native speakers after 6 weeks. Sure I made mistakes in grammar, stumbled around looking for some vocabulary words, and asked my Italian friend to repeat things from time to time, but I know a 6 week old baby, or let alone a 3 year old could not have done any better!

  • Daniel Brockert

    Thanks a lot for this post. I have heard more than one linguist brag about not knowing any foreign languages in one breath and then speak with authority on second language acquisition despite having no real experience with it. I went through three years of bilingual education in Arizona in elementary and hardly learned any Spanish at all. But as an adult I’ve learned Spanish and a couple other languages. It’s about time someone posted this.

  • Liza Davis

    One thing that I have a problem with is the premise that children learn language effortlessly … since when? The ONLY way this can have any credence at all is in the learning of conversation. And for this premise that all children brilliantly pick up conversation before some critical period – then we would presume that all adults are conversationally fluent in their native language. Ummm …. just from riding any public transportation on any given day, in any part of the world, you can see that some of those children, that are supposed to be so brilliant at learning conversational language, pretty much missed the boat. The people who speak as if they never went to school, probably ARE the one’s that never put any effort into learning their native language to fluency, which means correct pronunciation, grammar, and an expanded vocabulary so that they can function at any level in society. PUHLEAZ, this myth of effortlessness is TOTAL BUNK – it takes GREAT effort to learn one’s own native language successfully … and I am assuming that these wise linguists aren’t taking into consideration the language learning skills of reading and writing – which take a great deal of effort,indeed. And as adults, those of us who have already gone through the effort of learning our own language, can apply our reading and writing skills in our native language toward the intensification of our learning capacity of similar languages – something that babies can and never will do. So I don’t really “get” the great advantage of being a baby and learning a language. I am all for science, but I am really tired of academic elitists telling us that simple observation of life, and my own experience and others which adds up empirically and logical thinking things out … doesn’t count unless I write a grant for it … This is why people are AFRAID to develop their intelligence on their own, because they are intimidated by all the specialists who need to trumpet their self-worth with great Harumphing to justify the great academic debt of time and money they have accrued in their lifetime.