This year I have been blessed with an opportunity that has helped me grow, learn, and ponder new questions about this thing we call “learning”. As an educational coach, I am currently coaching the entire foreign language department at a private school, and am immersed in French, Spanish, and Chinese classrooms. While I am fluent in German, and of course English, I have only ‘un poco’ Spanish, far less French, and no Chinese language skills at all. But...I am learning, and amazing myself. This has led me to wonder about the brain’s plasticity, and our ability to learn languages easily, especially as we age.
Thus it was with great fascination that I happened upon this article, MIT Scientists Prove Adults Learn Language to Fluency Nearly As Well As Children. The main findings in this article assert this: “In a nutshell, this team found that if you start learning a language before the age of 18, you have a much better likelihood of obtaining a native-like mastery of the language’s grammar than if you start later. This is a much older age than has been generally assumed… This data has also given us a really amazing insight into language learning in general and shows that adults of any age can obtain incredible mastery nearly as quickly as children.” But what about learners after the age of 20, I wondered...
Analyzing data from nearly 750,000 people over time, the scientists also found that, “Given the same amount of time, the top quarter of learners from the over-20 group do just as well as the average of those who started before 10.” (The scientists did concede that the evidence got “pretty wobbly” for the over-20 group after about 20 years of learning experience, however, and this was due to a much smaller sample size. Apparently, not very many people choose to learn a new language at an “advanced age”, probably fearing that it will be too hard).
The author of this article, Scott Chacon, does, however, seek to explain one apparent reason that children learn languages faster than adults -- and that is the amount of exposure that children receive. “It’s highly possible that this learning difference by age is not due to some magic change in brain plasticity, but simply that adults don’t have as much time to be exposed as children, and often hit a point where it stops being helpful to improve after a while. They become totally fluent at this slower pace and reaching native-level mastery provides little additional advantage. Maybe it’s not that it’s harder for older learners or that they’re not capable, maybe it’s just that they don’t have the same opportunity.” Or...I might add, the same amount of time to pursue mastery, given the other challenges of life.
Another interesting finding of the study was that, as people sought to master a new language , it did not seem to matter what their native linguistic background was. The human brain, at any age, is equipped with neuroplasticity, and learns.
The most encouraging advice from the scientists in this study confirmed what I have been hopefully suspecting as I dabble in French, Spanish, and Chinese -- “ Don’t let use poorly reported studies convince you not to try learning a language. The truth is that you’re almost certainly very good at it. People consistently learn new languages in a year or two -- from no knowledge to very capable, fluent levels, -- and in my personal experience, much faster than children given the same amount of time. That last mile, getting from fluent to native-like, is statistically more difficult...but like any good 80/20 rule, the first 80% of the results takes 20% of the time. What is remarkable about language is that we are (nearly) all extremely good at it, including adult learners.”
My takeaway for gifted individuals, and especially those of us concerned about keeping our brains challenged and growing, is that learning new languages can be one way to accomplish our goal.
As always, I look forward to your thoughts. Together we learn and grow.
Past President, WATG
Picture this -- you’re reading with a baby or a toddler on your lap, and he is grabbing for the beloved book, listening curiously to your voice, intently watching your finger point to pictures, or colors, or words, settling in contentedly as you read, enjoying a cuddle, and building a lifetime love of reading and books. So many of us have done this, and know why it’s invaluable.
Now imagine this -- you’re accomodating a gangly, elbow-y seven year old on your lap, and she’s reading quietly, pausing to chuckle and share a favorite passage with you, inviting you to read a page aloud, or asking you a question about a word or an idea. Again, so many of us have savored experiences like this, and wonder when we will no longer read aloud with our littles.
But now fathom this -- you receive a voice message or a phone call from your college kid, or your adult kid, or a student you’ve known and loved, recommending a book, or an author, or a passage -- and he reads breathlessly aloud to you. Why did that happen? How did he know that you’d treasure this moment -- a payback, if you will, for sharing your love of reading, and reading aloud, all of those years with him?
While many of us know and can cite the research about reading aloud to younger children, we may not realize the value of reading aloud to older children.
I was recently musing about this, and voila, (or maybe our Alexa was listening in?), this article appeared in my new feed: Why reading aloud to older children is valuable. In this article, Jim Trelease, a Boston based journalist, known as The King of Read Aloud, extols the benefits of reading aloud, even for older children, and asserts that the benefits are both academic and emotional. Trelease says, ““The first reason to read aloud to older kids is to consider the fact that a child’s reading level doesn’t catch up to his listening level until about the eighth grade... You have to hear it before you can speak it, and you have to speak it before you can read it. Reading at this level happens through the ear.” I pondered this for awhile, thinking about gifted kids. For gifted kids, their reading level may be extremely high, but the concepts might be dense, the vocabulary might be new, or the issues might be perplexing, confusing, or fraught with anxiety or emotion. Being read to, out loud, with time to discuss and process, may ameliorate these concerns.
In schools, reading aloud, even to older students, may be happening more often than we think. Research shows that 58 percent of teachers read aloud to their students - and nearly 100 percent of reading and special education teachers read aloud to their students. Research indicates that “motivation, interest, and engagement are often enhanced when teachers read aloud to middle school students and beyond.” As an educational coach, I have watched middle and high school teachers read to their students, and have witnessed the rapt attention, nodding heads, and knowing smiles when this happens. Being read to frees students from decoding, and from making embarrassing mistakes, and exposes them to the beauty of sometimes difficult text shared in the voice of a master reader.
Reading with our older children at home conceivably has the same effects, and is even more intimately powerful because of our special parent-child connections. Together we can share the enjoyment, and build a treasure trove of favorite words, works, phrases, topics, genres, and authors -- strengthening our bonds with our children as they mature.
My (informal) research has revealed that even adults enjoy being read to -- at least judging from the sales of audio books, or the popularity of “chapter-a-day” programs on public radio.
So finally, when thinking about reading aloud, picture this -- a number of years ago, while on vacation, I broke my glasses and was unable to read. That evening my dear husband read to me, and I discovered that being read aloud to is a gift that keeps on giving, regardless of age. Even grandmothers adore it.
I hope that this article encourages you to keep reading aloud to your loved ones, and to your students, if you are a teacher. Who knows what memories you will make together?
As always, I welcome your thoughts and ideas as we grow in understanding.
Jacquelyn Drummer, Past President
WI Association for Talented and Gifted
Gifted in Perspective
A column designed to link the gifted perspective to other perspectives, and to make you think