But you knew this already...
"Compared to children, adults are bad at learning language. This is counterintuitive; adults outperform children on most measures of cognition, especially those that involve effort (which continue to mature into early adulthood). The present study asks whether these mature effortful abilities interfere with language learning in adults and further, whether interference occurs equally for aspects of language that adults are good (word-segmentation) versus bad (grammar) at learning. Learners were exposed to an artificial language comprised of statistically defined words that belong to phonologically defined categories (grammar). Exposure occurred under passive or effortful conditions. Passive learners were told to listen while effortful learners were instructed to try to 1) learn the words, 2) learn the categories, or 3) learn the category-order. Effortful learners showed an advantage for learning words while passive learners showed an advantage for learning the categories. Effort can therefore hurt the learning of categories."
Glass half full. Note that they conclude with what effort can hurt, but did not point out the same conclusion for passive learning on learning words. Sounds to me like we should be passively active and cover all the bases. I do like the fact that they created an artificial language to test their hypotheses. I do not like the fact that they made a generalization about adult vs. child learners which they did not test in their study and which was spurious to the conclusions.
Any adult who was required to play ball, demand food, take turns, and play with others of the same age (four to ten years) could ... well, we don't know what they could do. They don't have to learn to play ball, they need to learn how to discuss... politics, economics, child rearing, budgets, finance, car maintenance, etc.
The kid says - 'my bike's broke' in a foreign language and we are thrilled. We expect to be able to say - 'the derailleur was damaged when I slipped on the pavement over on Chanson Street and the bike slid along the pavement into a tree, now it slips between 5th and 7th gear and there is a funny sound when I press on the brakes.' We don't even point out that the child has the grammar incorrect, because we are busy praising them. With the adult, we immediately look for something, anything, to correct, and thus fulfill our roles as parents, teachers, or demigods.
Read your reply twice, and enjoyed it both times. Merci.
As you can see from this writer's experience, in the end, it was worth the effort for other reasons.
Note that the author of this second article is comparing himself to 4 year old native children. That is an entirely different case. In their native language children are going to outperform foreigners for several reasons. 1) They have listened to the language for four years, understand some, but not all, and can produce a limited range of specialized vocabulary. What is more, because they have been immersed in the culture, they pipe up with their bon mots at the right moment in the right context. They may not say much, but they say it appropriately. They use and understand a set of conversational exchanges which are never taught in foreign language courses. They are specific to both the individual's age and social context.
2) While there is vocabulary overlap between the native child and the foreign learner, the child knows an enormous number of nouns that are simply not in the cards for the foreign learning. Children are in the process of labeling everything in sight to exchange a visual system with a verbal system of organization. They also have this wonderful ability to ignore the problem when they don't know the name for something...they just keep on talking.
3) There were a series of commercials recently featuring preschool kids talking about bigger is better. The commercials were "cute" because they displayed the point of breakdown in children's language. They use very simple vocabulary to describe concepts and ideas beyond the scope of their understanding. They are fluent; the stream of words never stops. Well, it does for some of them. Some of the kids have learned to stop talking when they think they don't understand.
4) Most children go through a wonderful period of language practice in their native language when they talk all the time - while they are alone, with adults, or with other children. Sometimes they even talk to the adults and children, but often that isn't necessary. They don't freeze up when they make a grammar mistake or forget a word. They don't bother with a dictionary - some of the more creative just make up a new word.
And of course, those are all things that we don't have the time or the context to enjoy.
When you finish a course in French or any other language, you can live in a very small world created by 8 to 10 hours of study a week. Even in the most intensive courses, the number of conversational gambits and the amount of vocabulary is limited. It you can learn to order in a restaurant, ask for and understand directions, and discuss your day in "and then I" phrases, you are doing well.
Even if you can understand movies, news reports, and read Voltaire - coming up with the proper response to "Nice day, isn't it?" takes thousands of hours of preparation. Most native teenagers simply grunt. Coming up with a reply that fits the social situation, the status between speakers, the actual weather conditions, the intent of the speaker, and the message you wish to return (ironic, comedic, serious, flippant...) requires a supercomputer.
The author of the article took comfort in the fact that he had woken cognitive skills that had lain fallow by studying language - but he should also have congratulated himself on what the language he had learned.
But that is what we are trained to do. We focus on what we can't do, rather than what we can. We don't talk because we might make a mistake in pronunciation or grammar - or more likely - both. So, we miss the chance to become supercomputers.
Very nice summary, and I agree completely with your last two points. Training your brain to avoid dementia has a value that cannot be calculated. Feeling defeated because perfection was not achieved, is something we are trained as adults to feel, so that this week's "solution" can be sold to us, in the form of a political view, product, charity, etc.
I suspect that a child's indifference at attempting to say something, failing, and being corrected counts for a lot. I'm often terrified to even order food in French, something that should be trivially easy at this point, because I'm concerned I might make a slight pronunciation or grammatical error. It's something I'm trying to work on, but it isn't easy. My guess is that the easy language learners like Benny Lewis have absolutely no fear and are speaking a new language with anyone from the get go.
My 'language correspondent' in France once laughed at my accent, and I asked if she understood me. "Yes, totally", she said, "So it's only the accent?" I asked. "Yes", she said. I told her that if I spoke English with a UK accent those around me would laugh as well. I'm an American. Why would I emulate another country's accent? Why would I even emulate a Southern US drawl? I'm from NYC. I wouldn't expect a Southerner to "pahk their cahr", like a Bostonian. I'm not going to pander, and try to pretend to be French. I'm simply trying to be understood. I'm not going to choke on an "r" or pretend that I have something lodged in my sinuses to pronounce an "n". The big picture is not to beat yourself up over being less than perfect.