Bilingualism

by Brian on April 2, 2012

Last week the linguistics department here at Michigan hosted the 2012 Marshall M. Weinberg Symposium. The theme for this year’s symposium was bilingualism. I learned a ton from the various speakers, much of it about how hard it was to learn a second language after very early childhood.

Even people who appear, to naive judges, to be fluent in a second language they learned after childhood, perform well below native speakers at cognitively demanding linguistic tasks, such as understanding speech in noisy environments, or explaining proverbs. I don’t have the citation link for this, but Jürgen Meisel reported that German students learning French by immersion did much better if the immersion started between 32 and 42 months than they did if they started after 42 months. The errors that he reported were common among the older learners after several months of immersion, like not getting the genders of articles right even for words like maman where you would think it was obvious, were really striking. Karen Emmorey reported that the same thing was true for learners of ASL; late learners can become fluent enough for practical purposes, but are never as good as people who learn ASL in early childhood.

The striking contrast to all this is how successful first language acquisition is. To a first approximation, 100% of people successfully learn the syntax of their first language, and do so at a staggeringly young age.

I realised a few days after the symposium that there was a huge question I wish I’d asked. Why are we so good at learning a first language, and so poor at learning a second language. What cognitive system would have such a feature(/bug), and what evolutionary advantage could there be to having such a system?

Here’s one possible answer that I think is simple, explanatory, and sadly not consistent with the data. As Gilbert Harman noted in his talk, philosophers have long argued about the question of whether humans think in language. (Being philosophers, they’ve also argued about what the question even means, and that’s not a trivial issue.) Let’s adopt the following working hypothesis: humans who have learned a first language think in it, those who haven’t, don’t. This transition, from not thinking in language to thinking in it, runs very deep in the system. Once you have learned a language, it is impossible to not think in it. Compare the striking fact that once you learn a language, it is impossible to not interpret sounds you hear that are communications in that language. Once this transition is made, learning a language goes from being an instinctive task to a cognitive task. In Kahneman’s terms, it goes from being a system 1 task to a system 2 task. And learning a language is just too hard a task for system 2; it is literally harder than rocket science or brain surgery.

This obviously can’t be the complete story; a full explanation would need to fill in a lot of gaps. And the analogy I appeal to with Kahneman’s system 1/system 2 can’t be completely right. In Kahneman’s examples, system 2 is supposed to be more accurate than system 1, but self-consciously learning a language ends up being less accurate. The bigger problem, however, is that the hypothesis gets the timing all wrong.

The Meisel studies I mentioned do say that learning a language gets harder after about 42 months. They don’t say it gets harder after 24 months, let alone after 36 months. In fact, the students who start second language immersion then seem to do pretty well. But my little hypothesis would predict they’ll do badly, since by those ages they do speak their first language.

There’s also a problem at the other end. Profoundly deaf children with hearing parents often don’t learn a sign language until very late. And since they are deaf, they don’t learn a spoken language either. But that doesn’t mean their minds retain the plasticity to adopt a new language as a native speaker. Instead (at least according to results Karen Emmorey mentioned in Q&A), they do worse than even second language learners of ASL.

So I don’t have much of a theory as to why we should be wired this way. I assume that something in the ballpark of my hypothesis is right. Our ability to learn language isn’t switched off, it is inhibited by some other abilities we acquire. But how that inhibition works, I don’t really know.

It’s possible of course that there is a widely known and well supported explanation for this phenomenon. If so, I’ll be a little disappointed that it didn’t come up last week. But I rather doubt it does exist. One of the themes of the talks was that there was much less research on bilingualism than you’d expect, given how big a feature of the world it is. And most of the relevant data being discussed seemed to be from very recent studies. So I think until recently we didn’t know many of the facts to be explained, let alone have an explanation of them. Still, this is not at all an area I’m an expert in, and I’m sure many CT readers will be able to point to more informed speculation than mine.

The talks at the Weinberg Symposium were videotaped, and I believe they’ll be posted to the web shortly. I’ll update this post when that happens.

Thanks again to Marshall Weinberg for sponsoring this event. Marshall sponsors many, many things at the University of Michigan (including my job!), and the intellectual environment here is much richer for it.

{ 69 comments }

1

kharris 04.02.12 at 8:03 pm

I think we already have an answer to your question about why we are better first language learners than second language learners. The answer is, that we are not. We are better early language learners than we are late language learners, and much of the effort to learn a second language comes later. A child raised in an immigrant household where the parents speak their native language at home, but where the child is exposed to the local language outside the home, can be fluent in both languages. That’s because exposure to both languages begins early.

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kharris 04.02.12 at 8:06 pm

In fact, our ability to learn lots of things changes as our brains are remodeled over time. Teenagers famously go through a ferocious remodeling, but my understanding is that remodeling is fairly constant throughout childhood and slows down after the teen years, but never really stops.

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Brian 04.02.12 at 8:07 pm

Good point, the real question is why we are better at early than late language learning, not first rather than second. But I’d still like to know more about why this is so. Why does the brain remodel in such a way to lose this amazing ability it seems to have through 42 months?

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Brian 04.02.12 at 8:09 pm

One reason I made the mistake that kharris points out is that I’d started thinking of cases like the child in an immigrant household as having “two first languages”. But that’s a sloppy way of putting things; kharris is 100% correct that the issue is early vs late, not first vs second.

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Sebastian 04.02.12 at 8:35 pm

Completely off the cuff wild ass guess: is it because we filter things much more as we get older? Part of being an adult is learning that lots of the time you have to filter out all sorts of inputs. You have to focus on THIS thing, not be distracted by THAT thing. Perhaps learning a language requires that you don’t filter very much, so once you get too get at filtering things, you can’t immerse yourself fully in another language.

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Pascal Leduc 04.02.12 at 8:36 pm

I only learned English as a child, however a lot of people are surprised when I tell them my second language is English. I myself am often amused by the fact that my written English is much better then my written French (to the point that I wasn’t sure I was going to get access to higher education).

Because of this I have always had a practice based opinion to language learning we learn the second language much more slowly and poorly because we dont need to, we already have another language to use. This does not explain deaf people however or anyone who hasn’t learned a language by their fourth year.

If we are wondering why super language skills shut off after a while we should ask ourselves if said super language learning skills bear a certain cost to the person in some way, shape, or form. I guess we could hunt down some poly linguistic person and find out if they are more limited in some other field. (assuming they didnt get that way by just taking lots and lots of language courses).

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john in california 04.02.12 at 9:13 pm

A simpler, and deeper, reason is the economy of evolution. No doubt language grew out of simple sound signals that primates must learn early in life for survival. Duplicate systems that would give these sounds other values would have no practical reason to arise. Now, obviously, human brains are flexible ( and redundant?) enough to assimilate more than one language( perhaps when later learned using different neural paths) but the best time would be when the associations (sound to meaning) are first introduced. Also, would it not be easier for a child to learn a from language base similar to there own? that is, would it not be more difficult for a child to learn Vietnamese and English than Spanish and English?

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QS 04.02.12 at 9:16 pm

“understanding speech in noisy environments”

There is a silver lining to this: being able to tune out the outside environment when desired! Returning back to the States after a time abroad, my first complaint is usually about the inane conversations I suddenly understand.

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SamChevre 04.02.12 at 9:41 pm

A hypothesis, based on only the information above: we preferentially think in language, but if language acquisition lags thinking-ability by too much, we develop the ability to think non-linguistically. Once a “thinking-method” is set (either a particualr language or non-language) new language acquisition won’t displace it entirely–the new language is effectively a second language. If the language acquisitions are simultaneous, then there isn’t a preferred one generally (although there will be for certain tasks); note, for example, that asking people for family stories is notable for getting more information if they answer in the language spoken by their childhood family. (I remember this, but don’t have a cite.)

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Brian 04.02.12 at 9:43 pm

Sebastian, that’s a really interesting suggestion. We do have independent evidence that children are bad at filtering.

Pascal, john – those both seem like great research questions. I’ll try and look up what’s known about the skills/limitations of polylinguistic people, and about whether learning similar languages is much easier than learning harder languages. I’m hoping my 17 month old English understanding daughter can still pick up Bengali, so I hope it isn’t too hard to do what john is saying.

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Jason 04.02.12 at 9:56 pm

I think this gets the question backwards. On the evidence presented, it is probable that we are only really ever designed to acquire one language. It’s remarkable that we are able to learn new languages at all, not that we are bad at it. I suspect 2nd language acquisition is only possible by exapting faculties that were originally only asked to acquire one language, the language of the immediate tribal group. As larger social organisations developed (clans, moeities, ethnic groups, kingdoms, civilisations, etc) those that could exapt their neural machinery to learn more than one language had an evolutionary advantage over those that couldn’t.

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Katherine 04.02.12 at 10:33 pm

When learning a first language, you don’t have any choice but to do so. That’s what’s presented. You have few others ways to communicate, and everyone big and important around you is requiring and encouraging you to learn, often to the point of withholding goods and services until you cough up the correct word.

I daresay there are few, if any, similar situations an adult, or an older child, might experience. Even if immersed in a language as an adult, you already have another one (ie your first) to think in.

Really, when you think about it, it takes a small child quite a long time to get fluent. But, again, they don’t have any choice.

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Katherine 04.02.12 at 10:35 pm

Sigh. Comment stuck in moderation. I’m pretty sure I didn’t accidentally swear, but obviously some combination of words got me into trouble.

Roughly: When learning a first language, you don’t have any choice but to do so. That’s what’s presented. You have few others ways to communicate, and everyone big and important around you is requiring and encouraging you to learn. That’s not an experience repeated at any other point in life.

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Brian 04.02.12 at 10:46 pm

I think the evidence about how good young children are at learning two languages, either simultaneously or sequentially, raises some doubts for what Jason and Katherine say. A 30 month old has just as much choice about whether to learn a second language as a 42 month old does. But the 30 month old does much better. And 12-18 month olds exposed to two languages do an excellent job of sorting the data they get into the right languages. I think, though I’m very unsure of this, this happens even when the languages aren’t ones they are very good at telling apart.

Both those points make me sceptical of a theory that says we’re only wired to learn one language, and anything else is a fortuitous side-effect. Also, even if second language learning is a fortuitous side-effect of having a 36 month old brain, the question of why the 36 month old should be wired that way is still interesting.

Maybe to make the question I’m asking a little clearer, presumably we get some benefit from the maturation process between ages 3 and 5. Presumably the loss of abilities to learn languages as well as native speakers is side-effect of that benefit. But what benefit could it be that inhibits language learning? And why must it inhibit language learning?

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Brian 04.02.12 at 10:49 pm

In response to an earlier question by Pascal, there are some skills that polylinguistic people in general have more of than monolinguistic people. Julie Sedivy discusses some examples here. There are potentially some downsides too, though Nuria Sebastian-Galles’s talk at the symposium was in part about how some of these are overstated. I still want to track more of this data down for you, but it might not be until tomorrow.

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John Quiggin 04.02.12 at 11:33 pm

I don’t think that, at a “wiring” level, the distinction between learning one language and learning two is meaningful. Within any given language, there are lots of different modes (what vocab you use, lots of details of syntax) depending on who is speaking to whom and so on – this is highly formalized in some cases like Japanese, less formal but equally critical in English. So, if a child learns to speak to Mum in one way and Dad in another, it’s only much later that they will learn these are different languages.

Coming to the evolution question, I’ve long thought that this is the one clear exception to the “blank slate” idea. To quote myself from a review of Pinker’s book of the same name

Pinker is a linguist and takes the acquisition of language, more precisely, the acquisition by children of their native language, as the paradigm example of learning. It’s hard to disagree with the conclusion that children’s brains are hardwired for the learning of language, based on the simple observation that two-year olds perform with ease a feat which most adults find exceptionally difficult.

But the exceptional nature of this feat should alert us to the dangers in using it as a paradigm. Langugage is the only characteristically human cognitive feat for which we are obviously hardwired (like most other complex animals, we are also hardwired for vision and other senses). For nearly everything else, the Blank Slate metaphor seems appropriate. Thanks to the environment in which I grew up, I can solve functional equations, swim the Australian crawl and perform many other tasks unknown to my putative hunter-gatherer ancestors. On the other hand, I can’t make or throw a spear or distinguish edible from deadly forms of bush tucker.

A striking instance of the absence of hard-wired functionality relates to kinship systems. Pinker lays much stress on the cultural universality of kinship. Yet even a relatively simple kinship system such as that prevailing in modern Western societies presents a formidable learning task for most children, and puzzles of the form ‘brothers and sisters I have none, but that man’s father is my father’s son’ baffle many adults. There is little to suggest that the capacity to learn kinship systems is any more hardwired than the capacity to learn trigonometry.

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John Quiggin 04.02.12 at 11:34 pm

Blockquotes fail again – last two paras should also be quoted :-(

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JanieM 04.03.12 at 12:51 am

Still, this is not at all an area I’m an expert in, and I’m sure many CT readers will be able to point to more informed speculation than mine.

Though linguistics is one of the stops I’ve made on my dilettantish path through life, I’m not an expert in anything. But it’s fun to speculate, so here goes.

I realised a few days after the symposium that there was a huge question I wish I’d asked. Why are we so good at learning a first language, and so poor at learning a second language. What cognitive system would have such a feature(/bug), and what evolutionary advantage could there be to having such a system?

What if we ask this question the other way around, i.e. what evolutionary advantage would there be to maintaining, throughout life or at least a lot longer than we seem to, the brain system/structures that facilitate learning first language(s)?

If I try to imagine measuring the advantage of knowing the language of the people you’re born amongst as compared to the advantage of knowing a language that you might encounter later, there seems to be no comparison. I.e., the former seems immeasurably greater than the latter, all the more so if the vast majority of early humans rarely if ever encountered a second language.

Everyone needs a first language; once language exists, not to be able to speak the language of your people is a major handicap. But not everyone, in fact hardly anyone, proportionally, needs a second language.

That framing doesn’t fit with this suggestion (hypothesis? speculation?): Our ability to learn language isn’t switched off, it is inhibited by some other abilities we acquire.

If there’s dedicated brain machinery that facilitates early language learning, and it ties up a lot of brain resources and is rarely ever used again, the advantage gained by maintaining it might be much smaller than the advantage gained by repurposing the machinery for some other use. Dismantling the structures and reusing the parts doesn’t seem quite the same thing as “inhibiting” language learning, it seems more like an obvious response to the fact that for most people, later language learning wasn’t/isn’t that important.

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JanieM 04.03.12 at 12:54 am

Drat. Third paragraph should be italicized, it’s Brian’s. I got my tags crossed up.

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JanieM 04.03.12 at 1:02 am

Really, when you think about it, it takes a small child quite a long time to get fluent. But, again, they don’t have any choice.

It probably reveals a certain bias on my part, and perhaps the shortcomings (and/or out-of-date-ness) of my dabbling in linguistics, but I am under the impression that their lack of choice is like their lack of choice in whether to get taller, not like their lack of choice in whether to eat their peas.

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Andrew Smith 04.03.12 at 1:08 am

I hadn’t realised the window was so short. So far we have been speaking mostly japanese to my 33 month old, mostly because we were lazy and she seemed to pick up english so easily. Now I had better get onto speaking English all the time before it’s too late.

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Sev 04.03.12 at 1:14 am

Just my layman’s understanding- can’t find a good cite- but I believe 42 mo is just about the age of brain lateralization/ major neural pruning, which I think is also consistent with what others have said about filtering. This pruning means that a lot of developmental decisions are made, and alternative possibilities excluded.

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JanieM 04.03.12 at 1:28 am

In the language acquisition class I once audited, there was quite a bit about how early in life (a few months) babies seem to start distinguishing the sounds in their native language(s), and not bothering with the rest. All my work from that course is buried in the attic, so I’m not going to try to give a scholarly cite, but here’s the first thing a search online comes up with:

http://www.nytimes.com/1992/02/04/news/babies-learn-sounds-of-language-by-6-months.html

As to this…

Also, would it not be easier for a child to learn a from language base similar to there own? that is, would it not be more difficult for a child to learn Vietnamese and English than Spanish and English?

…there was also something in that syllabus about very tiny babies (just days old?) starting to distinguish languages by their characteristic rhythms, of which (if I remember correctly) there were considered to be three: syllable-based, … and two others. This article refers to “prosody” and seems to be about similar stuff:

http://abcnews.go.com/Health/MindMoodNews/newborns-cry-accent-study-finds/story?id=9006266

That doesn’t say anything about bilingualism, but it would be fascinating to know if anyone has studied early acquisition of more than one language in relation to how similar or different the languages are. Then again, there are so many axes along which to define “similar or different” that maybe it’s a more complicated question than it seems at first glance.

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JanieM 04.03.12 at 1:37 am

Here’s another link, though it seems to refer to the same study:

http://www.washington.edu/research/pathbreakers/1992b.html

The point of relevance to the OP is that the efficiency mechanisms seem to start very early. (If I remember correctly, some of them apparently start to operate within days of birth.) Newborns can distinguish any and all language sounds (makes sense; human infants are not pre-programmed to learn only the language of their biological parents), but they lose that ability very early in order to concentrate on the important sounds: the ones used in their native language.

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Peter T 04.03.12 at 1:40 am

There’s an evolutionary hypothesis I came across that goes like this:

Yhere was an advantage to some apes to being able to cross longish stretches of open terrain teeming with nasties. So they progressively became bipedal and upright (more efficient walking, better able to endure mid day sun when the nasties mostly sleep). But this moves legs under pelvis, narrows birth canal. So infants need to be born earlier to reduce birth difficulties. Infants now need to get more brain input outside womb. So there’s an advantage to better communication, which provides this input. This in turn requires lower in-group competition (lower sexual dimorphism, small canines, fairly intense male bonding, less competition for access to females and so on), which also helps in fending off nasties. Process spirals up through numerous hominid species to reach a peak in us.

As far as I can tell this is consistent with the evolutionary record. What it points to is that it’s not brains acquiring language. It is, to exaggerate a bit, languages wiring up brains in default of doing the job in the womb. Of course the brain gets less receptive as it goes, just as there is less and less room to modify a machine as you build it. We retain the capacity for learning, but the brain has been wired by language(s) at a deep level.

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lupita 04.03.12 at 1:45 am

But what benefit could it be that inhibits language learning?

It could be the benefit of only distinguishing the phonemes, sequences of phonemes, and tones that make up your mother tongue(s) and making it easier to understand despite background noise. In order to learn a language, a baby has to first recognize the sounds that convey meaning and discard the ones that do not. Once these sounds are blocked out as meaningless, it can prove difficult to regain the ability to hear them again, hence the difficulty of learning a language at an older age.

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purple 04.03.12 at 2:04 am

Why does there need to be an evolutionary advantage ?

Evolutionary explanations occur after the fact, I have yet to see the principle used to predict much (making it unusual in the sciences). The evolutionary process can go any number of ways and is not perfect in any sense.

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Mitkyina 04.03.12 at 3:24 am

Just out of curiosity, why is ‘language’ the unit? Just because adults distinguish them, doesn’t mean the infant’s brain does.

Also, I don’t think it can just be assumed that there is an evolutionary benefit to learning many languages — why? I know married couples who have children but don’t share a language.

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Mitkyina 04.03.12 at 3:26 am

Also, is a sufficiently complex evolutionary explanation indistinguishable from fantasy? Evidence here suggests so . . .

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Meredith 04.03.12 at 4:40 am

JanieM and purple raise very interesting questions, seems to me.
Another question (I hope interesting), among all those one could raise around the definition of “bilingual”: how about distinguishing reading/writing a language from speaking it? I suspect OP privileges speaking over reading/writing. Is that justified? (You don’t have to be Derridean to wonder.) This question arose for me, immediately, as I investigated Burmese this evening (thanks to obvious, recent news). Apparently a language (another one) with notably distinct written and read vs. spoken forms. Caught my attention I guess because I can read a number of languages very well and can even write in some of them, but speak only English, really.

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Z 04.03.12 at 8:14 am

Why are we so good at learning a first language, and so poor at learning a second language. What cognitive system would have such a feature(/bug), and what evolutionary advantage could there be to having such a system?

I second the remark that the idea that every characteristic of a living system should be linked to or explained by a direct evolutionary advantage is not the correct way to think about the evolution of organisms. In the particular case of organ development (here, I identify the capacity to learn a language with an abstract neural organ), this way of thinking might be particularly faulty. Take the case of web-footed birds. The embryos of all birds are web-footed, but in most species a massive apoptosis occurs to allow the transition to non webbed paws. Web-footed birds exhibit a mutation inhibiting this apoptosis (this mutation also occasionally occurs in some individuals of non web-footed species). Likewise, neuronal development is characterized by massive waves of apoptosis depending on the presence or absence of some neuronal connections. Among mammals, these waves occur mostly in the womb, but some do after birth. It is very likely that the fact our brains lose their aptitude to learn languages after a certain age is due to such a fixation of neuronal organizations due to one of these waves of apoptosis.

Note that this development of the brain (or indeed any organ) by massive waves of apoptosis is very well explained in terms of adaptational advantage and general evolutionary theory. The fact that we lose certain abilities past a certain point of development is a predictable side-effect of this mode of development that needs no special adaptational explanation; or at least no more than the fact that cats loose the ability to perceive oblique lines after three weeks if exposed solely to parallel and perpendicular lines or the fact that an embryo of bird which has webbed paws at a certain stage of its embryonic development will retain these webbed paws independently of whether its species generally is web-footed or not.

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Katherine 04.03.12 at 8:19 am

I think the evidence about how good young children are at learning two languages, either simultaneously or sequentially, raises some doubts for what Jason and Katherine say.

Once again, the confusion between first/seond language and early/late language arises. What I meant was that a young child has no choice but to learn what “language” (meaning words) is placed before her at a very young age (1-3, when language is truly forming, rather than later) whether that is one or two “languages” (meaning body of particular words). Later on in life, there is no such extreme compulsion, even in a state of immersion as an adult.

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Katherine 04.03.12 at 8:23 am

I’m not claiming any expertise here, by the way, I’m just trying to look at if from a child’s-eye-view, since I’ve been watching my (50 month old) daughter go through it recently.

I’m not an authoritarian parent at all, but I’ve been struck by how many times I (and others) will instruct a small child to use a word to communicate, even when we know actually that they are asking for juice (or whatever), in order to “encourage language”. From a child’s eye view, that looks a lot like compulsion, and is.

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X 04.03.12 at 8:30 am

As purple notes, there’s no reason to assume a priori that this inability is an evolutionary feature rather than a bug with no direct or indirect selective advantage. There may or may not be biological reasons for this difficulty, but there is what strikes me as an obvious social reason: children generally get to spend all day and night in the close proximity of native speakers, don’t lose any esteem in their own or others’ eyes when they say things wrong, and automatically get treated as insiders rather than strangers. It’s very rare for an adult second-language learner to experience anything like that situation. There are also structural reasons, of course: a person who’s already learned that [p] and [pʰ] count as the same sound (as in English, but not Hindi), and that eating crunchy food, eating soft food, and eating soup count as the same activity (as in English, but not Songhay) tends to have some difficulty unlearning these, whereas a first-language learner does not have preconceptions of this kind to correct.

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Andy Wilton 04.03.12 at 1:38 pm

For whatever bearing it might have on polylingustic advantages and limitations, we’ve raised two kids to full bilingualism (with la petite derniere just starting to realise that Mum and Dad speak two different languages rather than a single highly redundant one), and I can cite one clear disadvantage compared to monolingual peers: vocabulary size. Bilingual kids have twice as many words to learn in the same time, and something’s got to give. When we had our oldest tested at age 9, his chart for different abilities had bars all at a pretty uniform height, apart from (French) vocabulary which was significantly lower. The educational psychiatrist’s comment was, “That’s typical of bilingual children.”

Jason @ 11: I suspect 2nd language acquisition is only possible by exapting faculties that were originally only asked to acquire one language, the language of the immediate tribal group.

I think this misses the (as I understand it) very common case where Mum comes from outside the tribe and speaks a different language. This would provide a compelling evolutionary reason for children to learn two languages early: if you can explain what you want to both Mum and (paternal) Grandma/Auntie, you’ve got a better chance of getting it. Between siblings, that edge could make a critical difference.

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Adam Roberts 04.03.12 at 2:57 pm

Hypothesis: it’s all about incentive (this is to follow on from JanieM at 18). There is a very strong incentive to go from no language to one language; but once a person has one language there is only a relatively small incentive to add languages. This would explain why we see the difference in linguistic aptitude in immigrant families — Mum and Dad will learn the new language, but they’ll speak it with an accent, unidiomaticallty and so on, because although they are incentivized to undertake this onerous, complex task (they need to be able to communicate, go shopping, get by at work and so on) they’re not strongly incentivised . At the same time peer-group pressure will result in daughter and son speaking accentless, fluent and idiomatic New Language, because they have a strong incentive not to stand out amongst their schoolfriends and so on.

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Brian 04.03.12 at 2:58 pm

What I meant was that a young child has no choice but to learn what “language” (meaning words) is placed before her at a very young age (1-3, when language is truly forming, rather than later) whether that is one or two “languages” (meaning body of particular words). Later on in life, there is no such extreme compulsion, even in a state of immersion as an adult.

I guess I don’t really see the distinction here. How is a 3 year old German speaker placed in an immersive French environment being compelled in a way that a 4 year old German speaker placed in an immersive French environment not being compelled? Or, to take a kind of case that has been studied a bit, an 8 year old East Asian orphan adopted in Canada is pretty clearly compelled to learn English/French, but they don’t do nearly as well as if they were adopted at 2 or 3. Compulsion doesn’t seem to quite be driving it.

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Brian 04.03.12 at 3:03 pm

Hypothesis: it’s all about incentive (this is to follow on from JanieM at 18). There is a very strong incentive to go from no language to one language; but once a person has one language there is only a relatively small incentive to add languages.

The orphans I mentioned in the previous post raise some doubts about this. They are strongly incentivised to learn the language of their new surroundings. And eventually, slowly, painfully, they do. But they just can’t do it as quickly, or ultimately as well, as younger children, despite having every incentive in the world to do so.

It’s a very very good practice to check whether people can’t do something or simply won’t, and I think both Adam and Jamie are pushing a very plausible line, but I just don’t think it matches up with what we know about immigrants.

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Brian 04.03.12 at 3:05 pm

If I try to imagine measuring the advantage of knowing the language of the people you’re born amongst as compared to the advantage of knowing a language that you might encounter later, there seems to be no comparison. I.e., the former seems immeasurably greater than the latter, all the more so if the vast majority of early humans rarely if ever encountered a second language.

As Andy Wilton says, I’m not so sure this is true. I imagine most humans nowadays are in frequent contact with multiple languages. (This is less striking if you are a native English, Hindi or Mandarin speaker I suspect, but the overwhelming majority of people in the world come into frequent contact with one of those three languages.) Now it would be good to have an actual ethnographer here to give more details, but I would not be at all surprised if the same thing is true prior to the development of long distance travel. It’s true that we now are in contact from people with more parts of the world than our ancestors were. But it’s also true that there is much much less linguistic diversity than there once was. The first suggests more contact with other languages than our ancestors, the second suggests less, and I have no idea how these balance out.

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Brian 04.03.12 at 3:07 pm

Just my layman’s understanding- can’t find a good cite- but I believe 42 mo is just about the age of brain lateralization/ major neural pruning, which I think is also consistent with what others have said about filtering. This pruning means that a lot of developmental decisions are made, and alternative possibilities excluded.

That’s really interesting, because 42 months seemed like a very significant marker in the data Jurgen Meisel presented. Maybe we just develop radically different brains around that time, and the new brain is better at some things and worse at others (like language learning). It would still be great to know why we don’t have a brain that can do both, but it would be fascinating if this were part of a more sweeping change that happens at 42 months.

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Brian 04.03.12 at 3:10 pm

Another question (I hope interesting), among all those one could raise around the definition of “bilingual”: how about distinguishing reading/writing a language from speaking it? I suspect OP privileges speaking over reading/writing. Is that justified?

Yep, I definitely was (and am) privileging speaking/hearing over reading/writing. (In a general sense of speaking/hearing that includes producing/interpreting sign languages.)

The difference between early and late learning is, I think, nowhere near as pronounced when we focus on written language. For one thing, well under 100% of people acquire proficiency in reading/writing simply by immersion at a young age. For another, very few human languages were developed for the purpose of written communication; the original form is almost always spoken.

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Brian 04.03.12 at 3:14 pm

I second the remark that the idea that every characteristic of a living system should be linked to or explained by a direct evolutionary advantage is not the correct way to think about the evolution of organisms.

Good point, and I certainly didn’t want to come across as thinking everything had a simple evolutionary advantage. I suspect that the explanation of why we do so bad at late language learning will be some kind of side-effect story; there’s something else that we do (perhaps for a good reason) and post-42 month easy language learning is incompatible with it.

But I think I can frame the questions without making any dubious assumptions about the nature of evolution. One question is, what is it that makes it hard for older humans to easily learn a language? If something else blocks off that ability we once had, what is it? Another is, how is it that this inhibition works? We don’t have to have a strong belief in pan-adaptationism to find these interesting questions, and I probably messed up by originally phrasing the questions in ways that supposed a pretty naive treatment of evolution.

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Barry 04.03.12 at 3:34 pm

Sebastian 04.02.12 at 8:35 pm

” Completely off the cuff wild ass guess: is it because we filter things much more as we get older? Part of being an adult is learning that lots of the time you have to filter out all sorts of inputs. You have to focus on THIS thing, not be distracted by THAT thing. Perhaps learning a language requires that you don’t filter very much, so once you get too get at filtering things, you can’t immerse yourself fully in another language.”

And time/energy/necessity. For a child, learning a language opens up vast new opportunities, including things like sophisticated social communication. Going from zero language to one language is an incredible leap in utility.

After that, not so much.

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Katherine 04.03.12 at 3:36 pm

How is a 3 year old German speaker placed in an immersive French environment being compelled in a way that a 4 year old German speaker placed in an immersive French environment not being compelled?

Because by the time they get to 4, or 8, or whatever, they already know language and how to communicate more. The “speak this word or you won’t be understood and have any chance of getting what you want/need” element doesn’t exist in the same way. A four year old or an eight year old can communicate, by vociferous gesticulation, or climbing up and getting the damn thing themselves, for the sake of argument, in a way a 2 or 3 year old can’t.

I daresay a 4 or 8 year old will be quicker at learning a language than an adult, perhaps for the same reasons moved further along. I’ve found myself, for example, in a place where there was literally no shared spoken language. I made myself understood by use of rudimentary sign language, and, when it came to it, drawing what I needed. A 4 or 8 year old wouldn’t be able to do that in the same way, let alone a 2 or 3 year old.

As I say, I’m not an expert, even slightly, it’s just a practical consideration that occurred to me.

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Barry 04.03.12 at 3:42 pm

Jason: “s larger social organisations developed (clans, moeities, ethnic groups, kingdoms, civilisations, etc) those that could exapt their neural machinery to learn more than one language had an evolutionary advantage over those that couldn’t.”

That would be a rewiring of major neurology, done only in the past several thousand years.

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Neville Morley 04.03.12 at 4:58 pm

I have absolutely no expertise in linguistics, so the following is solely vague speculation on the basis of personal experience and can as such be ignored, but I’m struck by the tendency in many comments here to reify individual languages-as-defined-by-modern-linguists (presumably subsuming dialects, even those that bridge two different modern languages like Plattdeutsch?), and also to conflate different kinds of linguistic abilities into a single fluent/not-fluent dichotomy. Assuming that the capacity for language is innate, does that imply that every individual tribe on the veldt would have developed a completely different language, or might we expect (a) grades of differentiation, perhaps increasing with distance and (b) hence a tendency to be more comfortable with closely related languages and better able to cope with the linguistic consequences of inter-marriage with neighbouring rather than distant tribes?

I didn’t start learning German until I was in my twenties; I certainly don’t speak it like a native, but I’m fluent enough – and after a week or so of immersion, I do find myself thinking in German at least some of the time, and dreaming in it. I do think that, at least in part, this is because of the shared roots with English, so that in a sense they’re different forms of the same language. It might be interesting to compare acquisition of related languages (an Italian learning French) with acquisition of unrelated ones (a Chinese person learning English).

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David 04.03.12 at 7:28 pm

I’m not sure if this answers your question, but my understanding from having looked into this many years ago when our (now bilingual) children were born is that language acquisition occurs in different parts of the brain depending on when one learns the language. Undoubtedly grossly simplifying, but for young bilingual children, both languages are in one part of the brain, while for later acquirers of a second language they are in two separate parts.

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Frank Ashe 04.03.12 at 8:15 pm

Maybe I’m not normal, but I have to take objection to the comments in the original post that people think in their first language. I find that I have to translate a lot of my thinking into English from non-verbal forms to explain what I’m thinking about. Sometimes I have to say that I can’t say what I’m thinking. This is especially the case when I’m thinking of something with spacial characteristics, such as the design of something, or a mathematical pattern.

There is a lot of limiting structure around the words we use and this structure may be laid down with the first language and then optimised for speed of processing around 42 months, which then makes language learning harder.

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JanieM 04.04.12 at 1:59 am

I’m at least partly with Frank Ashe about thinking in English.

My sense of it is that when I think in any language at all, it’s English, but not all my thinking is in language form. As Frank says, sometimes it’s mathematical/logical (a lot of my working life has been spent as a programmer), sometimes it’s visual (I’m pretty sure I can “think” the rich, complex images of the back pasture and the lake across the road, rather than any words that describe those scenes), sometimes it’s in some kind of non-word-based patterning. Sometimes it’s feelings. If I feel a feeling, and I’m conscious of feeling it (self-aware), but don’t have the words to describe it, is that “thinking”?

Of all the things I’m not, philosopher is high on the list, so I’m not going to go any further with the question of whether being self-aware of having a feeling comes under the heading of “thinking.” ;)

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bad Jim 04.04.12 at 5:55 am

There is a theory that creoles are the creation of children brought up in a (typically colonial) environment in which there are at least two mutually incomprehensible languages bridged at most by pidgins. The supposition is that language is not only absorbed but even perhaps invented by children, whose brains are not completely wired when they start to master speaking.

It might also be reasonable to consider bilinguality in cases where neither language is English, which is itself a sort of Germanic-Romance creole with an unmanageably large vocabulary.

Oh, and what Frank Ashe and JanieM just said. I’m another programmer who finds it hard to describe some sorts of thinking which are quite abstract, certainly neither verbal nor visual. I’d go further and say that my stream of consciousness is by no means primarily linguistic; when I’m hunting an idea the words only come into play like the talons of a hawk, at the last moment when the prize comes within reach.

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bad Jim 04.04.12 at 7:31 am

I kinda mangled my second point, which is that English mastery, due to its excessively extended and class-freighted vocabulary, might be harder to evaluate than other bilingual bonanzas. The intelligence of English speakers is routinely tested by tallying how many unusual words they know. It isn’t immediately obvious that this sort of test would be equally useful for speakers of other languages.

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Chris Bertram 04.04.12 at 7:36 am

One thing that’s always puzzled me is how French people ever get fully competent in their literary tenses, since exposure to those will post-date the learning window and isn’t picked up from regular speech. Maybe most of them don’t and it too is a class marker (only graduates of the grandes ecoles can do it properly or something).

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Phil 04.04.12 at 8:27 am

AIUI there’s a lot of drilling in French lessons in French schools – the journal Ornicar took its name from the list of conjunctions “Mais, ou, et, donc, or, ni, car”, which apparently every child would know. (They once used the slogan “Mais où est donc Ornicar?”.) Presumably the passé composé is something you “just know”, on a similar level to “i before e except after c”.

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Chris Bertram 04.04.12 at 9:14 am

You don’t mean the _passé composé_ Phil. I’m talking _passé simple_, _passé antérieur_ and so on.

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Z 04.04.12 at 9:19 am

One question is, what is it that makes it hard for older humans to easily learn a language? If something else blocks off that ability we once had, what is it?

I think this is a very useful reformulation. Let me try my luck. All cells have the capacity to program their own death if they lack some signals from surrounding cells. It is known that neurons are especially prone to this and that this is the cause of the (partial) rigidity of the brain (this partial rigidity allowing in turn knowledge and memorization, but also limiting our capabilities). This process is ongoing, but the mammalian brain undergoes several massive waves of apoptosis which radically restructures it early in its existence. It is known that that one such a wave is responsible for the loss of some visual capabilities for cats (in the first weeks after birth) and it is highly suspected that another such wave is responsible for the development or lack thereof of maternal instinct for mice. Based on the general knowledge that we have of the development of much simpler organs, we have all reasons to believe that the same phenomenon is responsible for the loss of higher cerebral capabilities (like language acquisition). So it is believed that the answer to your first question is “Inability for the neuron of adults linked to language acquisition to prevent their own apoptosis” and that the answer to your second question is “the nature and timing of secretion of some neurotransmitters which prevent neuronal apoptosis”. The fact that we can learn new languages late in life at all then comes from the fact that we very probably use very different neuronal networks to learn new languages (those, for instance, linked to short-term memory; which would explain why we usually forget the meaning of foreign words without practice whereas it is almost impossible to imagine that we could forget the meaning of a word of our first language). Now the (revised) questions become: what causes and organizes neuronal apoptosis? and where does its timing come from? It is a vibrant area of research, and you could start for instance with Synaptic Assembly of the Brain in the Absence of Neurotransmitter Secretion (Verhage et al, 2000).

How French people ever get fully competent in their literary tenses, since exposure to those will post-date the learning window and isn’t picked up from regular speech

We don’t, at least if, as Brian 41, we concentrate on spoken language and if we define fully competent as “first language like competent”. No French person I know (no matter how prestigious the higher education institution attended) uses passé simple in usual conversations except to a create a deliberate literary feeling and it is a common trivia that we (meaning members of the educational élite) throw at each other to conjugate on the fly difficult but common verbs, like coudre, moudre or bouillir. More salient is the fact that our présent simple and passé composé (without which you absolutely can’t get by even in informal speaking situations) have some common irregular or ambiguous forms (ouvrir, voir, dire, est, es, ai, ait…) which children cannot be expected to master before the crucial cut-out (my 3-year-old son certainly believes that “la porte est ouvrie” is correct and, if corrected, reverts to “tu as ouverté la porte” instead). So in some sense French speakers commonly use these (very common) verbs as if they were from a second language, and relatedly perform rather badly at difficult tasks (a close observation of Frenche speakers shows that many, probably most, of them occasionally conjugates voir as if it were voyer and dire as if it were diser). But I’m guessing the same might be true of native English speakers. Do they never produce sentences like “He’s flied to NYC”? And isn’t there a whole argument between Ross and Rachel based on the premise that the syntax of whom is acquired many years after the cut-out and thus feels “second language like” to many English speakers?

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Chris Bertram 04.04.12 at 9:29 am

Z. The childhood development thing you mention is not uncommon in English, but I think that what typically happens is that the child first “gets” the irregular form and then, discovering the rule, starts to overgeneralise it. So “He’s flied to New York” might well be something a small child in the overgeneralization phase would say. But never an adult, I think. (Comment based on personal experience and anecdote rather than research, I hasten to add).

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Phil 04.04.12 at 10:10 am

You don’t mean the passé composé Phil

Vous êtes assez droit. Je rappelle très petit français – je vraiment devrais donner en haut essayant.

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Colin Reid 04.04.12 at 11:26 am

I don’t think the passé simple is any great mystery – it is a mark of education, just one that most French speakers attain (in first-world Francophone countries at least). Just because people’s language-learning abilities are strongest when very young, doesn’t mean that almost everything is learned by the age of 4. But it’s clear that people are at a disadvantage when it comes to grammatical structure learned later in life, even in their first language. For instance, most people have no trouble distinguishing between ‘I’m’ and ‘my’, because it’s obvious in speech, but for many people the difference between ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ is difficult and has to be deliberately learnt, even though it’s an entirely analogous distinction, because they are only exposed to it after learning to read. ‘He’s’ and ‘his’ might be interesting, because I’m sure there are some accents that pronounce these identically. Maybe children who have grown up only hearing such accents find this distinction as hard as ‘you’re’/’your’?

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Chris Bertram 04.04.12 at 11:57 am

Colin, that’s certainly consistent with a point I heard a French teacher make about mistakes in written French. Confusing the infinitive and the past participle is something native speakers do (where they sound the same, of course) but is almost never done by those writing French as a second language.

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Peter Erwin 04.04.12 at 12:19 pm

bad Jim @ 50
There is a theory that creoles are the creation of children brought up in a (typically colonial) environment in which there are at least two mutually incomprehensible languages bridged at most by pidgins. The supposition is that language is not only absorbed but even perhaps invented by children, whose brains are not completely wired when they start to master speaking.

A fascinating recent example of this is Nicaraguan Sign Language, which appears to have been created by deaf children at special schools for the deaf in Managua in the late 1970s and 1980s. In this case, there were no pre-existing languages involved; instead, children elaborated a mixture of simple home-signing gestures into first a crude pidgen and then later (starting with the younger children) into a fully fledged language. More detail here.

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Peter Erwin 04.04.12 at 12:46 pm

Colin Reid @ 58
But it’s clear that people are at a disadvantage when it comes to grammatical structure learned later in life, even in their first language. For instance, most people have no trouble distinguishing between ‘I’m’ and ‘my’, because it’s obvious in speech, but for many people the difference between ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ is difficult and has to be deliberately learnt, even though it’s an entirely analogous distinction …

Nitpicky point — what you’re talking about isn’t grammatical structure at all, it’s spelling. No native speaker of English has “trouble” with “you’re” versus “your” (or “they’re” vs “their” vs “there”) in the spoken language any more than they do with other homophones, many of which are spelled identically (like “rank” or “cow” or, indeed, “spell” and “like”).

The problem is that we tend to evaluate people’s “language competence” by a complex mixture of competence at the spoken language and competence at various additional categories of orthography and specialized literary forms and dialects; the latter are of course important culturally, but don’t really bear on the question of how children learn to speak and understand languages generally.

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dbk 04.04.12 at 1:45 pm

As the mother of two “natural” bilinguals (now adults), there was a period in my life when I was thinking alot about this subject. My conclusions are the same as Z’s above @55, i.e. the reason (very) young children can acquire full native speaker competence in more than one language (and older children/adults cannot) is connected with neural development/ apoptosis. Eric Lenneberg’s “critical age hypothesis” initially posed the problem, and I found Gerald Edelman’s Neural Darwinism helpful too.

It’s been a long time since I have read about this subject, but iirc there was a very interesting study of bilingual aphasics sometime in the nineties (Univ of Oregon?). Basically, the study demonstrated that true bilinguals – the subject of this post – may entirely lose one language through traumatic brain incident, and retain the other in full. This would suggest that such individuals possess two separate language systems extending from the limbic system all the way up to the highest neocortical layer and back again. SL users, otoh, would seem to have a single language acquisition and production system, with SL “grafted onto” the NL system. This (theory) helps us account for the persistent phenomenon of interference (from L1) in all but natural bilinguals, where there is no interference. Interestingly, such interference is most marked in the “lower level” functions (e.g. pronunciation), and least marked in the “upper level” functions (e.g. reading comprehension), which also would tend to support the neural darwinist theory for language, viz. that neurons hard-wired to recognize all human phonemes at birth die off in the absence of exposure. Stronger neural connections are accordingly formed (during “pruning”) for the native language, including extremely fine gradations in sounds (accounting for the fact that by and large, native speakers of a language are more sensitive to differences in pronunciation and intonation in the native language than are non-native speakers – a distinct “advantage” btw for native speakers). Brain plasticity appears to be highest for higher-level cognitive functions, and lowest for functions hard-wired at birth.

I recently watched two excellent lectures by Dr. Allan Schore (UCLA) discussing pretty much the same issue, though regarding a different area of brain development (emotional attachment). What is rather new in our understanding of brain development is the massive amount of genetically-programmed brain growth that continues throughout the first year or two of life, i.e. until initial neural pruning occurs. The continued genetically programmed growth of neurons/synaptic connections takes place in direct contact/interaction with the “facilitating” (or non-) environment, implying that nature (genetic development) actually responds to nurture (learned development) and program further post-birth brain connections accordingly. It’s pretty exciting stuff!

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JanieM 04.04.12 at 2:09 pm

dbk — that is really great stuff, thanks for sharing it.

In the midst of a lot of fascinating territory, one little factoid that I didn’t know grabbed me: that there is no interference in natural bilinguals. The phenomenon of interference (presuming this is what you mean by it) has always intrigued me in my own dabblings in language. I took 2 years each of Latin and French in high school (all my tiny high school in the 60s offered), then a semester each of French and German in college, and a year of Old English in grad school. Plus I’ve dabbled with adult ed classes and/or tapes in Russian, Irish, and Italian. Every time I get into an intensive phase of listening to (these days) Italian tapes in the car, the interference kicks in: as I go through my day, Italian words and phrases float through my mind, but also German and French. (Russian and Irish I never had more than a passing exposure to, and for Latin we only really studied reading and writing, so I have no aural sense of Latin except from the Mass of my childhood.)

Did I forget to mention the months I spent listening to just the first handful of Pimsleur tapes in Chinese before going to visit my son there? Aiy. Now there’s an illustration of how much harder it is to even get started when there are no echoes whatsoever in vocab, pronunciation, or grammar. Compared to my month in China, my month in Brussels felt almost like home, linguistically speaking.

In my next lifetime I think I’ll go live somewhere long enough to become “second language” fluent. True bilinguality — maybe too much to dare ask for.

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Colin Reid 04.04.12 at 4:18 pm

@Chris Betram: Confusingly, the phrase ” m’a tuer” (sic) is now a well-known phrase in France, after an infamous murder case in 1991 in which “Omar m’a tuer” was found written in blood near the victim’s body. For instance there is now a book out called “Sarko m’a tuer”.

@Peter Erwin: If you want an example that can be heard in speech, some people say “should of” as an emphatic form, as in “I should of, but I didn’t”, where standard English would use “should have”. (I say ’emphatic’ because “should have” is usually rendered as “shoulda” or “should’ve” in speech when it’s not being emphasised, and “should of” appears to be descended from “should’ve”.)

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bad Jim 04.05.12 at 8:25 am

@Colin Reid, I can’t hear the difference between “should of”, which is obviously ignorant and ungrammatical, and “should’ve”, which is the sort of lazy language that passes the lips of this insufficiently over-educated bum. I don’t think that people like me have an idiosyncratic grammar machine which randomly alternates between prepositions and auxiliary verb forms. The sense is clear, and was never in doubt.

I’m sure that, as usual, I’m missing the point, but I view the rendition in text of “shoulda” or “should of” as stigmatizing the speaker as uneducated, since everyone understands the underlying language.

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Peter Erwin 04.05.12 at 10:32 am

bad Jim (and Colin Reid):

I think Colin is suggesting situations where someone is speaking slowly and deliberately — situations where you might normally avoid contractions and the like, saying “I will not do that” instead of “I won’t do that” — and they are still saying “‘ve” (“of”) instead of “have”. I found an interesting if extreme written example in this web page of a British law firm: “Container door which injured client should never of been used”. (I.e., the headline writer evidently believes that the normal form is “‘ve”, even when it’s not directly attached to a modal auxiliary like “should”. This is combined with the moderately common orthographic error of writing “‘ve” as “of”.)

You’re right that describing people as saying “should of” instead of “should’ve” is a form of “eye dialect” almost always meant to stigmatize the speaker as uneducated, even though the pronunciations are the same. In almost all cases, “should of” is not descended from “should’ve”, as Colin suggested — they’re the same thing, just written differently.

Nonetheless… there’s some evidence for a phenomenon (which I’m guessing might really horrify Colin) where people have taken this reduced form of “have” used with modal auxiliaries like “should” and essentially turned it into a new word, even to the point using it in circumstances where you wouldn’t use “have”. There are examples in this Language Log post, and in the comments. As Mark Liberman says in one comment: “Barbara’s post made the point that this ‘of’, after a long career as a reduced form of ‘have’, has become a different morpheme in its own right, and therefore often appears in contexts where ‘have’ couldn’t”.

However, I don’t think this counts, quite, as “failing to learn the language” in the sense of language acquisition — instead, it’s an example of language change, where some dialects have transformed the reduced form of “have” into a new word. If we wait a few hundred years, this might become a normal dialectical variant (like “ain’t” or “y’all”) or even a standard form. Or it might disappear, of course.

If you want a concrete example of language learning that continues into adulthood, then I’d pick vocabulary: people do continue to learn new words in their own native language long after childhood, after all.

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bad Jim 04.06.12 at 6:50 am

Thanks, Peter Erwin. Had it not been for this exchange, I wouldn’t of have heard of this phenomenon, although I’ve probably actually heard it many times.

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polyorchnid octopunch 04.06.12 at 4:40 pm

Hi, I’d like to offer a comment, and make a suggestion. First, some background:

I learned French as an adult… didn’t really start learning it until my thirties, when I moved to Montreal for the better part of a decade. I got a job in a French firm writing English for them (they needed their software translated from French to English and to have it documented; eventually they translated my manual back into French because it was much better than their existing documentation). One of the things they did was to send me to a night course to help formalize my French, so as to better understand the French docs as well as to aid in intra-company comm.

Since then, I’ve moved into programming and system administration, mostly on Solaris, though the programming I do is more about using tools like shell, awk, sed, grep, etc to be able to tie software together to do a particular job… though I do get pulled in pretty often during the design phase because I’ve got a good grip on complexity and general algorithmic approaches to solving particular problems.

My other job is as a musician. I’m a professional guitarist, playing anywhere from seventy to a hundred and fifty gigs a year. At that time I wasn’t nearly as active as I am now, but I had been doing it for some ten years or so at that point.

My brother had been living in French in Montreal for many years at that point (his wife and his daughters speak French as a first language). And yet, I soon exceeded him in French, esp. wrt to the actual sounds that came out of my mouth. He still kicks my ass in vocabulary, but I generally end up doing better in the area of gender agreement/verb tense (until it gets to some of the less common tenses), and when we speak I sound a LOT more Quebecois than he does.

A lot of the work I do as a player is improvisational in nature. No, that doesn’t mean I play jazz. What it does mean is that as a sideman I often find myself in the position of standing in front of an audience accompanying someone I’ve never met, let along jammed with, playing a song I’ve never heard. There’s a particular process that goes into this, generally starting with the condensed version of the song (what key is it in? what chords are you using in it? what’s the general feel of the song (i.e. – what’s the basic rhythmic pattern? train? shuffle? swing? funk? reggae? straight eighths? sixteenths?))and then having them count me in. The safe way is to start by hitting the one of the key you’re in, and then listening like hell to figure out what’s going on and getting there in a bar or so (or less if you can manage it).

Now, I’m not an academic, but I suspect it might be interesting to find out if musicians have an easier time of picking up second languages as an adult. If part of the issue is about cognitive filtering, it may be that music as a practice helps keep that from happening. In my general experience, I end up having a MUCH easier time than most of the people I know picking up new sounds that exist in other languages and applying them to successfully pronounce new words. My experience learning French (in reality my first real French lessons were in a taverne on Rue St-Jacques which had good live music and cheap booze, not to mention going to francophone parties to mostly hang out in silence, because, you know, I couldn’t speak the language ;) is that the hard part is picking up the music of a language, its rhythm… because once you get that it stops being a stream of undifferentiatable sounds and becomes a stream of words. At that point, it becomes about figuring out what the words mean, rather than figuring out what the words are, and that’s just straight up grunt work of pounding your way through the reference(s) for that language.

For the folks here that are actually studying this stuff, I’d suggest finding some musicians to study, and perhaps to study what’s actually happening in their brains while they’re talking, while they’re learning, and while they’re actually working on music (aside from learning natural language… just playing) to contrast and compare what’s going on inside the heads of both other adults as well as small children who are engaging in some of those activities.

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Craig 04.06.12 at 8:14 pm

An interesting implication of this is that we should probably start teaching our children to read before the age of 42 months. This is borne out by my personal experience: I started reading at the age of 2+, and read much more quickly than most other people.

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