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  • Do adults learn languages like children?

  • This is a subject that comes up all the time, and I'm

  • going to give you my take on it.

  • I'm going to look at it from four different points of view.

  • First, I'm going to talk about how the brain works, whether

  • it be in adults and children.

  • Second of all, I'm going to talk about the

  • tremendous flexibility that the child has.

  • The third is the previous knowledge, or the accumulated knowledge and

  • experience, that the adult has.

  • And finally, I'm going to talk about the difference in attitude between

  • a child learning a language, and an adult learning a language.

  • Now, I'm not a neuroscientist.

  • I'm sort of distilling for you what I have read in books by Manfred Spitzer,

  • whom I mention quite frequently, and also an audio book that I've been

  • listening to called "Wie Erwachsene Denken und Lernen", which traces how adults think and learn.

  • And traces the evolution of our brains from a neuro-scientific mapping of the

  • brain perspective, and a few other sources.

  • The first thing to realize is that our brains do not just

  • exist for learning languages.

  • In fact, the brain is a learning machine in the sense that the brain has to acquire

  • the knowledge, the ability to anticipate,

  • in order for us to survive.

  • So it develops knowledge based on input.

  • It learns that if I touch something hot, then I've gotta withdraw my hand right

  • away because it's painful at some point.

  • Even in an animal, if it sees a predator, it's gotta know that the response is to

  • get out of there as quickly as possible.

  • So the brain develops an ability to respond.

  • To input with output, with an action, with speech, or with something.

  • And this is done, as I described in a previous video, by these inputs going

  • to the hippocampus where they are stored, on a short-term basis, and

  • then they're passed on to the cortex.

  • And there's different areas of the cortex where, gradually, a longer

  • term memory is developed longer term.

  • Ability, call it explicit knowledge, is stored, which enables

  • us to function as human beings.

  • We know that if we hear or see or speak a word, there is a corresponding place for

  • that in our brains, neurons, and that neurons that are adjacent to each other,

  • similar to each other because the neurons are stored in areas of like by category.

  • And if there is enough

  • stimulus and enough similar neurons nearby, they may eventually fire

  • and connect through synapses.

  • And that's how learning takes place.

  • So this process is the same whether we're talking about a baby or an adult.

  • So now let's look at the baby.

  • So the baby has what, again, Spitzer refers to as "unlimited

  • potential and very limited capability."

  • And if we just take the question of sounds, English has 44.

  • Japanese has a very small number.

  • Spanish has also not such a large number because those languages have fewer vowels.

  • Danish, which has this enormous number of vowels, has an enormous number of phonemes.

  • But the baby can learn to be a native speaker in any of them.

  • It has total potential, limited capability. And what's more, apparently

  • babies like new sounds, so they're very much interested in receiving

  • and imitating these new sounds.

  • So that the brain of the child is very flexible.

  • It can develop in any particular way, depending on the input that

  • it receives from its environment.

  • In fact, the child even starts hearing language in the

  • womb, and that's been proven.

  • So that's the baby.

  • Very flexible, limited impulse control, interested in new things.

  • Imitates and has no anxiety about anything, and that's the baby.

  • So the process whereby the baby learns the language is similar

  • to how adults learn the language.

  • I mentioned previously, for example, that in the past tense of verbs in

  • English, a young child, two years old, will first use the form of the

  • irregular verbs in English correctly, the very common irregular verbs.

  • Then as it

  • gets a sense of the rule that the past tense is created by -ed.

  • It'll then use the past tense of regular verbs correctly, and then at a later

  • stage, it'll learn the past tense of the less frequent irregular verbs.

  • And the same happens in German.

  • And the same happens when adults learn verbs.

  • So the message here is that the brain starts to create rules for itself.

  • If the baby were instructed in its native language, the way so

  • many of us are instructed in the languages we're trying to learn.

  • The baby would probably never learn to speak that language.

  • In other words, the natural process is more efficient.

  • The natural process of allowing the input to bombard the brain with enough

  • frequency, with enough similar words, the brain starts to form these rules.

  • There are even apparently neural locations for rules that

  • are developed through this process of listening and reading.

  • So that's common [between adults and babies].

  • Now let's look at what's different.

  • A baby has no prior knowledge of anything.

  • Everything is new, so the brain of the baby is a blank slate.

  • You can imprint anything you want on the baby's brain.

  • An adult has prior knowledge, so that can be good and that can be bad.

  • As I'm going to explain.

  • First of all, the less favorable situation is that the mind of the adult has already

  • hardened around a certain range of sounds, for example, or certain

  • patterns of how to express things.

  • It is no longer as flexible as the baby.

  • It's not open to any influence.

  • It has its own native language, which makes it more difficult now

  • to imprint or to introduce new ways of saying things and new sounds.

  • However, on the other hand, the adult has knowledge. So when the baby

  • sees a tree, or a house, or a car,

  • it doesn't know what a tree or a house or a car is, at first, but the adult does.

  • The adult knows things.

  • It knows what objects are.

  • The adult even knows how, at least his own language or her own language,

  • works. The adult knows intrinsically,

  • even without consulting a grammar book, what a noun is,

  • what a verb is. And when the adult sees or hears words in a new language, they start

  • to get a sense, even without the grammar explanation, of the different functions of

  • words in a sentence. The adult can read. The adult can read a grammar explanation.

  • I've said before, the grammar explanation will not by itself enable

  • the adult to perform according to those rules.

  • However, it may help the adult notice what is happening in the new language.

  • So that can be an assist to the adult, which is not available to the child.

  • And when we get to more complex concepts like emotions or abstract words,

  • the adult knows these words because the adult has a rich vocabulary

  • in his or her own language. And therefore can very quickly acquire

  • the same corresponding words in a new language. The adult can read.

  • Reading is a phenomenal way of increasing our ability in a foreign language.

  • We know that when we are reading, it's as if we are speaking the language,

  • insofar as the brain is concerned.

  • If we do a lot of reading, We can actually condition our brains to get

  • used to the patterns of the new language, to develop patterns in the brain that

  • help us deal with this new language.

  • Adults who read well in their own language typically will be able to read

  • well eventually in the new language.

  • So these are advantages that the adult has.

  • The adult can download a podcast and listen to it.

  • The baby's not going to do that.

  • So that the adult has learning strategies that the baby obviously doesn't have.

  • The baby responds to impulses and is not sort of strategic in its

  • approach to learning a language.

  • So that's the adult.

  • Now, one of the things that Spitzer and Herschkowitz explain in this

  • audio book that I'm listening to,

  • is that our prefrontal cortex, which controls our impulses, sort

  • of our developing sense of values that help us have a better sense as

  • adults of what's good and bad for us.

  • This evaluation ability to evaluate, the ability to develop a strategy,

  • all of these things take place in the prefrontal cortex, which

  • reaches its kind of fullest stage of development, in a way, at the age of 25.

  • So by that time, the adult is better able, A) to control its impulses,

  • but B), to elaborate or to develop a strategy based on its own

  • values. That's going to help it learn.

  • So those are things that are happening and actually continue to happen.

  • Apparently as time goes on, the evolution in the brain is such that the brain

  • gets better connected, the emotions and the thinking gets all better connected

  • in the brain, so that we end up,

  • as we grow older, somewhat more balanced in how we evaluate things

  • and in our approach to life.

  • So we've now covered that the brain essentially functions the same, that the

  • child has by dint of being a blank slate, a greater potential, although more limited

  • capabilities. The adult has more limited

  • potential perhaps, but has capabilities that can compensate for that. And also

  • through reading and other strategies, can acquire a vast vocabulary.

  • But may have more difficulty pronouncing as well as a child.

  • So now we come to the fourth thing, and that is the evolution of attitude.

  • Research has demonstrated that the child is very much attracted to new things.

  • New is good for the child.

  • "Wow!

  • Look at that!

  • Look at this!"

  • As the adult gets older, he or she becomes more set in their ways.