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?

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Seminar on Debt: The First 5000 Years – Reply

by David Graeber on April 2, 2012

Let me begin with an apology—for two things, actually. First, for the fact this response to the seminar on my debt book was so long in coming. It happening that at the time the seminar was going on I was desperately trying to finish a book with a very firm deadline (not to mention I was also struggling with a flu, which added all sorts of interesting complications. I did finish it though. Only just.) Second, for the fact that, to make up for the delay, I seem to have overcompensated and the response became… well, as you can see, a little long.


Allow me also to remark as well how flattered I am by so much of this discussion. When I wrote the book it never occurred to me I would end up being compared with the likes of Polanyi, Nietzsche, or even Ernest Mandel. I shall try very hard not to let this go to my head. Now how shall I start? It would be ungracious not to respond to each in some way. But I think it might be best to start by clarifying a few issues that seem to crop up pretty frequently, both in this seminar and in other reviews and comments I’ve seen on the internet. Then I will take on the specific responses.
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Autism: what needs to change?

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 2, 2012

Today is World Autism Awareness Day. Autism manifests itself in many different ways, and it is a saying that each person with autism is not only different (we are all different!) but rather experience autism differently, and has different aspects of autism which affect him or her. In this series of post around Autism, I do not just want to discuss issues around autism from a third-person perspective (like the over-diagnosis question, or new scientific advances, or new books we’ve discovered), but also give the floor to those who live with autism, or those caring for & working with people with autism. I’d like to ask one question: What are the most important changes which you’d want to see related to autism, given your life and the context in which you operate? My (very particular and context-depedent) answer to this question is below the fold.

update: There is an excellent post over at Neurotribes written (and in part edited/collected) by Steve Silberman, which addresses exactly the question what needs to change. DO go read it.
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