Adult ability to learn a new language??

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Dinosaur, Aug 14, 2008.

  1. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    That would depend upon what you mean by "grammar." If you mean, as I bet you do, some rules that some English (or French) teacher taught you such as: "don't split infinitives", "don't end sentence in a preposition", etc. you are correct.

    As Shaw (I think it was) said to observe the second above English teacher's rule:

    "Up with cheating I can not put."

    But if you mean the fundamental grammar all humans are born with and gets restricted down to a "correct set" by hearing their native tongue when young, no. Then the child will "cream" the adult who has learned a second language with a fundamentally different grammar. That child will instantly tell you when a sentence is "grammatically correct" in that sense of grammar. The Child has a knowledge (that grammar) which even linguist can not fully describe about when a sentence is "good English" (or "good French") or not for millions of English teacher grammar correct sentences which the child has never heard before.

    For example "Up with cheating I can not put." is not good English, but is "English teacher grammar" perfect as it avoids the terrible sin of ending a sentence" with the two prepositions "up" and "with" as in:

    "Cheating I can not put up with."

    If you are a native speaker of English, and not too abused by English teachers grammar, you know this last version is "good English" and the first above attributed to Shaw, is not.

    If English is not your native tongue and you have only as an adult learned English, then Shaw's version, being English teacher grammar correct, would be your choice. If your native tongue were German, perhaps Shaw's structure is "good German." Except possilby "not" is error sort of like spliting the infinitive, I think. (As I recall from 50 years ago, "Nitch" should be at or near the sentence start if it is to be negative.) Once I realized how stupid many English teacher rules were, I stopped being very concerned about them. I bet French Teachers are equally dumb about what is good grammar.

    The grammar teachers teach is not the real grammar of a language. The real grammar is UNDESCRIBABLE KNOWLEDGE* developed from your innate / genetic gifts in early childhood by hearing it. With that childhood grammar you can instantly judge and automatically tell with zero conscious thought whether or not an entirely new sentence is properly formed in your native tongue or not.

    *According to Chomsky and his followers, you are born with the ability to learn / develop any of the world's true grammars. Hearing your native tongue sets you up for life to recognize sentences in your native tongue as "well formed" (grammatical) or not. You need not ever have had any teacher beating a set of arbitary** rules into you and calling sentences that follow them "grammatically correct."

    ** 300+ years ago, when educated Europeans learned at least Latin, they tried to make their native languages have similar structure. In latin it is impossible to "split the infinitive" as it is a stem of the verb. That blind copying of Latin form is why that it is bad English today, but few English teachers know this "monkey see, monkey do" behavior is the basis of their rule.

    If you don't get it now, it ain't my fault.

    (BTW almost all, if not all, languages use double negation for emphatic effect - I.e. it is grammatically correct, but logically wrong.)
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 18, 2009
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  3. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Nowhere in your post did you mention fluency. Fluency comes from being able to think in the target language. If you can't do that, then when speaking you have to form your sentences in your native language and translate them. That merely slows you down, but going the other way is a killer, because you have to translate the sentences you hear fast enough to keep up with the conversation. Only professional interpreters can do that.

    And that's the problem adults have. If you have a special aptitude you can get to the point of thinking in the language pretty quickly, but most people need a few years of practice before they get there, unless it's by total immersion. Even then they don't usually master the nuances, the slang, the clever plays on words that even the dumbest of us comes up with once in a while. Children do all of those things, which is what they're learning holistically with all the brain tissue that's not being channeled into organized vocabulary building.

    It's a rare adult who can appreciate poetry, puns and sophisticated humor in the language of a foreign country until they've lived there for a decade or two, no matter how many words they know. There's much more to language than vocabulary and grammar.
    Well geeze dude, when it comes to spelling you picked the two hardest languages on earth (that claim to have phonetic writing systems). Neither English nor French orthography has ever been reformed so we're still spelling words the way they were pronounced 700 years ago. In a sane world, forcing an eleven-year-old to spell "thoroughly guarding my garage" or qu'est-ce que c'est que ça would constitute child abuse.

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    But can you carry on a conversation in French? Do you speak as fast as they do and do you never have to ask them to repeat something because you couldn't keep up?

    And French is one of the more phonetically compact languages, like English and Chinese, requiring relatively few syllables to express an idea, so it is spoken slowly by international standards. Try it with a mile-a-minute language like Italian or Japanese!
    Some variation of that has been attributed to every English orator at one time or another, but "From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall not put," is a documented quote from Winston Churchill. Unfortunately these orators are not grammar scholars, or they'd realize that "up" in that sentence functions as an adverb, not a preposition. "This is something with which I shall not put up," sounds perfectly old-school without being stilted.

    But you can come up with some fun stuff if you're willing to overlook that distinction and count all words as prepositions which can be used as prepositions, even if they are not so used in the sentence in question. The longest sequence I've seen is:

    Daddy, what did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to out of about Down Under up for?

    Obviously in this case neither down nor under are used as prepositions, but it's less obvious that up and out are adverbs.

    It illustrates an interesting point which makes it clear that we absolutely must allow sentences to end in prepositions. You can reorder those words and connect the prepositions to their objects... until you reach "to." "I don't want to be read to," is a simpler version of the sentence, and there is absolutely no way to move that preposition away from the end.
    The up side of that was that they were all bilingual. It's alarming how many university-educated Americans I meet who have never studied a foreign language. I insist that, because unless you're a musician, sculptor, etc., 99% of your thoughts are formed in words, your language shapes your thoughts. Being able to think in a second language permits you to review those thoughts from an outside perspective.
    The unsplittable infinitive was not the worst of their folly. They actually taught children to decline nouns.

    Nominative: the boy
    Genitive: the boy's
    Dative: to the boy
    Accusative: the boy
    Vocative: O boy!
    I think it's not allowed in any of the Germanic languages. And I would also add French. Ne... pas, ne... rien, ne... personne, etc., are not really double negatives.
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  5. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    As someone who finds the difference in meaning between on time and in time both apparent and significant, I'd miss them (along with the distinctions of for them/ to them/ with them/ near them/ under them/ etc) And I have a feeling the Chinese do, as well, occasionally - along with the past and imperfect tenses, the ability to shade with tones, and other compact means of getting a lot said.

    It's not all advantage, this Chinese setup.

    The most desirable state in a language's grammatical evolution being, I suspect, not the simplest, nor the most ornate, but a point in the middle when the language is most adaptable and flexible, with the right number of features and resources - most capable?

    Meanwhile: intuitively, adults without childhood exposure seem to have trouble picking up musical instruments and similar things that resemble language, as well. But another phenomenon exists: in some fields, people seem to need a certain amount of maturity to learn certain new things. For example: I have met several high school math teachers who have mentioned, separately, that the concept of a "limit" seems very difficult to grasp before a certain age - an age that varies by student, of course, but in most is at least mid teens. Before that age, great effort produces meager and unstable results; after it, careful study of the definition with a couple of weeks' practice and the student is good to go.

    Are there features of language that are usually learned more easily by an "adult" - say, someone older than eighteen ?
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2009
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  7. ( ͡° ͜ʖ͡°) Registered Member

    I think an adult can learn a new language. When I took three years of Spanish in high school, it was nothing but abstration. However, when I spent a mere eight months in Peru, my Spanish became fluent. (In other words, I didn't have to do any quick mental translations; I thought in Spanish.)
  8. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The Chinese don't lack these nuances. They just express them with a much larger set of words to choose from: nouns and verbs. Instead of saying "the dog is on the box" they say "the dog occupies the box's top," but it could also be "the box's side" if the box happens not to be upright. The same is true of tenses. They just tell you exactly when the event happened. Because their syntax is more compact and because they don't use polysyllabic foreign words, their sentences actually end up with fewer syllables than ours--on the average seven to our ten.

    People have a way of inventing new features when necessary. The noun-adjective compound was quite rare in English (a few words like troublefree) until the 20th century, but now it's commonplace: fuel-efficient, cable-ready, resource-intensive, user-friendly... This is our way of getting around the imprecision of prepositions.

    Not that I'm aware of. My own experience in both learning and teaching language is that it gets harder with age. Although learning just one additional language in childhood makes it considerably less difficult to pick up the third one at almost any age. Apparently once your brain is introduced to the idea that there's more than one way to think, it's always ready for another.

    Obviously many of us continue becoming better communicators after adolescence--which is a good thing, if you've listened to any adolescents talk lately.

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    Some of this is clearly due to the continuing expansion of our mental abilities. Judgment, for example, isn't really fully developed until around age 30. This is why both armies and tobacco companies try to recruit suckers in their teens and twenties.

    Becoming a better communicator results in improving your mastery of your first language, but also of any other.
  9. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    I tend to think one does not need any language shared with others to think. Feral children think, plan ways to escape, get things, etc.

    What I think exist is a "language of thought" that gets automatically translated into your spoken language(s). So automatically you don't know you were not thinking in that fundamental language. Also adding to this illusion is the tendency to silently verbalize. Dennett even says that is what consciousness is in Consciousness Explained but IMHO he is full nonsense here. Feral children are certainly conscious as are may animals lacking any surface language to translate their language of thought into.

    Some things are not existent in the language of thought like 2 + 4 = 6. That must be done in the language your learned. My Norwegian wife was fluent in four of five languages, including English, with no translation from Norwegian, but if she had to subtract 6 from 23, it was done in Norwegian. I am far from fluent in Portuguese, and mangle the pronunciations so badly that often I am not understood the on the first try. I never studied it - just heard it like a child but with much less proficiency in 20 years than a 2 year old has. I read a lot, and have very good, large Portuguese reading vocabulary. My Brazilian wife is a university professor but old like me and occasionally will not be able to recall a Portuguese word and ask me for it.

    I know I don't translate my English into my broken, badly pronounced and conjugated Portuguese as I have no idea what words will come out of my mouth in my poor Portuguese sentences until I hear them. Same as in English. If I have some thought or request I want express, it is formulated in the deep language of thought and it is so automatically translated into either English or Portuguese as then needed that I don't have any conscious awareness to the original formulation or the process that gets into a "surface" or language others share.

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