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
Gifted in Perspective
A column designed to link the gifted perspective to other perspectives, and to make you think.