The Language Window.

BBC News reports on a study that’s suggestive even if it relies on an internet poll:

There is a critical cut-off age for learning a language fluently, according to research. If you want to have native-like knowledge of English grammar, for example, you should ideally start before age 10, say the researchers. People remain highly skilled learners until 17 or 18, when ability tails off.

The findings, in the journal Cognition, come from an online grammar test taken by nearly 670,000 people of different ages and nationalities. […]

When the researchers analysed the data using a computer model, the best explanation for the findings was that grammar-learning was strongest in childhood, persists into teenage years and then drops at adulthood. […]

Study co-author Josh Tenenbaum, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, said: “It’s possible that there’s a biological change. It’s also possible that it’s something social or cultural. […]”

Thanks, Eric! And if you’re into TED talks, here‘s one on “How language shapes the way we think” by Lera Boroditsky (previously on LH); Bathrobe, who sent it to me, says “I didn’t realise that German speakers regarded bridges as graceful and beautiful while Spanish speakers describe them as long and strong.”

Comments

  1. Bathrobe says:

    Very depressing, but I’m sceptical. Perhaps because I’m interested in grammar I’m actually fairly sensitive to it. I can parse reasonably complex Mongolian sentences without too much trouble, as long as I have someone to guide me on points of interpretation. This is obviously something of an intellectual exercise and has more to do with analysis than production, but still.

    In my opinion, knowing grammar is only a small part of learning a language. In my own language learning, I know the grammar all right, but getting that theoretical knowledge out of the brain and into the surrounding environment is becoming an increasing challenge. The cited study doesn’t seem highly relevant to the question of age barriers in language learning.

  2. I prefer to think of my 3-day weekends them as puentes festivos. Makes them seem longer. And I would never want to command a German ship, because the sailors wouldn’t take my authority seriously up on die brucke. Instead, I’d hire Spanish sailors who respected the firm authority of el puente.

    Are speakers of languages where (nearly) all nouns and adjectives are gendered more sexist than English speakers? I’d think they could hardly escape it, if this research were accurate. Incredible that the Germans have a female chancellor, while we in the US suffer …

    Or maybe I’m just more than a little dubious. I’ve always assumed TED Talk was a synonym for social science research that sounds interesting at first glance, yet no one else can replicate it. This isn’t going to be the one that changes my mind.

    I would note that if you try to google this, you quickly find a version apparently similar to the TED Talk, (but in text, not video, PTL!):
    https://www.edge.org/conversation/how-does-our-language-shape-the-way-we-think

    In this version, Boroditsky footnotes the bridge anecdote to a paper of hers. That paper:
    http://lera.ucsd.edu/papers/gender.pdf

    … doesn’t have the bridge research either. Instead, the paper again describes the research, and offers a further citation – to “Boroditsky, Schmidt and Phillips (2002)”. In the references, this is given as a paper entitled “Can Quirks of Grammar Affect the Way You Think?”

    However, if you google that title, you still don’t get the bridge research:
    http://csjarchive.cogsci.rpi.edu/Proceedings/2003/pdfs/180.pdf

    In fact, you don’t even get a paper in which Schmidt is listed as a co-author. Just Boroditsky and Phillips.

    At which point, I think I’ve attempted due diligence, and can feel comfortable in dismissing it as a typical TED Talk. Your mileage may differ. That’s fine with me. But I’ll await hearing similar results from someone who believes footnotes, and replication, are important.

  3. Eli Nelson says:

    I took a look at the study itself, and the authors seem to be quite aware of the possible limitations or alternative interpretations of their results (as the BBC quote indicates). I don’t have the know-how to evaluate the statistics/model itself.

    @Bathrobe: Even though people pay a lot of attention to apparent ceilings on learning a language with native-level proficiency, the authors point out that even adult learners who are not as proficient as native speakers can still be proficient enough in their second language.

  4. This seems a bit lazy to me. Age is a description that doesn’t answer any deeper questions.
    Why not consider (off the top of my head):
    The ease with which we can merge ourselves into immersive environments tails off after age 10.
    Any differences between learning a new language versus learning anything else changing with age.
    The fact that someone (like me, for example) who starts learning English age 7 often loses all ability in his original native language, whereas this might not happen (to the same degree) if one starts age 25.

  5. The grammar quiz was posted on Facebook to get enough people to take part.

    So that was a rather self-selecting sample. They didn’t ask many demographic questions to help balance the findings.

    Results from the quiz: correctly detected my first language is English (U.K.); claimed my second-strongest influence was Scottish (no, except inasmuch as Scottish influenced:); correctly detected New Zealandish. There was one answer “She’ll be right.” which is a shibboleth for Aus/NZ speakers.

    Other guesses for my native language: 2. Hungarian, 3. Finnish. Huh? I don’t speak a word of either of them/never been to those countries/don’t have any rellies or friends from there.

    Can any Hatters suggest what Finno-Ugrian features I might have demonstrated? There were many convoluted sentences with nested relative clauses and funny inverted passives. I’m used to logic puzzles and cryptic crosswords.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    People remain highly skilled learners until 17 or 18, when ability tails off.

    That sounds suspiciously like “people remain highly skilled learners as long as they remain in school, where learning is the largest part of what they do all day”…

  7. Ook, Walle Nauta anecdotally described a similar experience, saying he left Indonesia at age seven and his older brother left at age ten and as adults the older brother can speak two langauges that Walle couldn’t recognize. He said this at a Neurophysiology meeting at MIT in the 1960’s and implied it was common knowledge among neurologists.

  8. Stu Clayton says:

    Do German speakers think of the sun as somehow more female-like, and the moon somehow more male-like? Actually, it turns out that’s the case.

    No, they do not. Not even “somehow”.

    So if you ask German and Spanish speakers to, say, describe a bridge, like the one here — “bridge” happens to be grammatically feminine in German, grammatically masculine in Spanish — German speakers are more likely to say bridges are “beautiful,” “elegant” and stereotypically feminine words. Whereas Spanish speakers will be more likely to say they’re “strong” or “long,” these masculine words.

    It is true, however, that people ignorant of a foreign language tend to believe that it is more elegant and strong, or long-winded and less beautiful, when told that is the case.

    I have no idea whether that tendency correlates with their biological sex, or gender preferences. There is a strong correlation with gullibility.

  9. At which point, I think I’ve attempted due diligence, and can feel comfortable in dismissing it as a typical TED Talk.

    Yeah, that’s why I introduced it with “if you’re into TED talks…” I personally am not, but a lot of people love ’em.

  10. Stu Clayton says:

    That’s an interesting idea, that TED talks don’t harm people by misleading them. Violence on TV doesn’t “really” harm children by setting bad examples, as I often read.

    There’s no way to stop the flood of words and images, so why try to cling to one tree rather than another ?

  11. Eh, people are constantly misled wherever they turn. Life is a constant series of course corrections. If someone gets interested in a topic via a misleading talk, they’ll probably learn better as they get farther into it. I got into linguistics via Mario Pei!

  12. Rodger C says:

    A counterexample of sorts: A late friend of mine from Huntington, WV said that when he showed visitors from Spain the bridge over the Ohio River, they were likely to say something like, “¿Cómo se podía construir una cosa tan feúcha?!”, while German visitors were likely to praise the strength and imposingness of the bridge. There’s an obvious national stereotype at work here, but at any rate it seems to imply the opposite of the claim above.

  13. John Roth says:

    I thought I heard the exact opposite in the bridge example some time ago. As far as gendered language goes, my experience is that it provides an easily overridable default. I’ve certainly found that to be the case with persona pronouns.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    It seems pretty obvious from exposure to any significant number of immigrants that ability to achieve indistinguishable-from-L1-speaker pronunciation is much more difficult if one came to the new language (or new regional variety of English) after some threshold age. It’s also pretty obvious that there can be considerable individual variation in that regard. So a pattern with respect to mastering syntax to an indistinguishable-from-L1-speaker level that is broadly similar seems fairly unsurprising. But it would be interesting to know if it’s the *same* pattern or if the crucial window of ages (or the steepness of the drop-off in ability to achieve that degree of fluency once a certain temporal threshold has been passed) are notably different for syntax than for phonology. The other thing is that it seems much more plausible that a came-to-English-in-adulthood immigrant could achieve native-level syntax without being able to do so in phonology when, but only when, consciously and carefully focused on syntactic accuracy in a specific context (either speaking or writing), with the ESL-ish “tells” instead manifesting in more casual contexts because the grammar has not been internalized and automated to the same extent it would be for someone who came to the language younger and thus requires a degree of conscious effort that is too challenging to sustain around the clock.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    No, they do not. Not even “somehow”.

    It’s not that simple either. I definitely think of snakes as female until proven otherwise.

  16. Lots of anglophones think of dogs as male and cats as female until proved otherwise, despite the lack of grammatical gender. There are few if any dog-specific female names.

  17. It seems pretty obvious from exposure to any significant number of immigrants that ability to achieve indistinguishable-from-L1-speaker pronunciation is much more difficult if one came to the new language (or new regional variety of English) after some threshold age.

    Without conscious effort, I think that threshold may be very low: I’ve known people who came to the US before puberty and had a noticeable NN accent. On the other hand, I think most people can attain nativelike pronunciation in another language if they’re willing to commit to a truly thorough study of the phonetics of it (and provided that they have good resources available).

  18. Forget about snakes. I have trouble not assigning gender to people about whom I know only a unisex name and who never were referred to by a gendered pronoun. That is, in the absence of any semantic or grammatical clues my mind cannot maintain (unless specifically instructed) gender equivocation. That’s what gendered L1 will do to your brain.

  19. >It’s not that simple either. I definitely think of snakes as female until proven otherwise.

    This makes the story of Adam and Eve that much more interesting.

  20. Stu Clayton says:

    No, they do not. Not even “somehow”.
    It’s not that simple either. I definitely think of snakes as female until proven otherwise.

    My “they do not” referred only to “Do German speakers think of the sun as somehow more female-like, and the moon somehow more male-like? Actually, it turns out that’s the case.” I stick with denying that is so. The words “somehow” and “actually” give the game away as being one of having a claim and eating it too.

    The evidence on which I base my denial is every instance I can recall of Germans mentioning, die Sonne or der Mond in my presence, whether in spoken or written form.

    I have no idea about the prevalence of Germans “thinking of snakes as female”. Where I live there aren’t enough snakes to shake a stick at, so they rarely come up in everyday conversation.

    There is the convention of referring to a devious woman as a Schlange, but that is an analogy based on behavior under a “sexist” interpretation, not on grammatical gender of the word. “Snakes slink around silently and strike unexpectedly” etc. It’s quite possible to refer to a man as a Schlange for similar reasons (without the “sexist” twist) , but that doesn’t occur much. Linke Ratte would be more usual on the street.

    If there were a German equivalent to “snake pussy” I might agree with David, but there isn’t.

  21. Stu Clayton says:

    Sie ist dumm wie Bohnenstroh. How many Germans think of (der) Bohnenstroh as “somehow male-like” ?

    Er ist ‘ne linke Ratte, How many Germans think of (die) Ratte as “somehow female-like” ?

    Fragen über Fragen.

    English speakers tend to be attracted like moths to a candle flame by grand claims about the significance of “grammatical gender” (in languages which have them, unlike English). They’re obsessed with sexual connotations, possibly because they don’t get enough in their native language.

    With regard to German, this is ridiculous. “Grammatical gender” in German is a syntactic feature that makes it easier to refer backwards and forwards in sentences. Germans are not more sexually fulfilled than Americans.

  22. @ Stu: It’s das Bohnenstroh, so there’s no masculinity to be inferred.
    There is some influence of grammatical gender on how words are conceptualized when personified e.g. in tales or children’s literature, e.g it’s Frau Gabel und Herr Löffel “Mrs. Fork and Mr. Spoon” due to their grammatical gender. And like for DM, snakes are female for me – and e.g. dragons are male by default; I remember coming across a female dragon in some work of fiction when I was young and being stumped by the unexpected gender. But these defaults are easily overridden, and I don’t think that I think that bridges are feminine.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    I didn’t even know calling people rats or snakes (or left for that matter, outside of politics) was still a thing, it’s purely literary for me. So I can’t answer those questions.

    Also, das Stroh, unless you’re talking about STROH Inländer-Rum.

    Lots of anglophones think of dogs as male and cats as female until proved otherwise, despite the lack of grammatical gender. There are few if any dog-specific female names.

    I wonder if that’s a retention. How do dog names work in Russian?

  24. How do dog names work in Russian?

    There are both feminine and masculine names. And every typical dog name I know cannot be re-gendered by simply changing the ending. They are distinct. But I don’t know much in this realm.

  25. Stu Clayton says:

    Also, das Stroh, unless you’re talking about STROH Inländer-Rum.

    A mistake ! No drum rum about it.

  26. I stick with denying that is so.

    It’s not a conscious awareness, but an unconscious tendency to use particular adjectives that are related to gender stereotypes with nouns that bear the same grammatical gender. Of course it is and must be only statistical.

  27. Stu Clayton says:

    Come again ? The very notion of “grammatical gender” is effectively non-existent for everyday Germans, unless they can dredge it up from school memories with a little prompting. I too never think of words in that way. Neither consciously nor unconsciously.

    On the ground there is no significance in der die das. I don’t choose adjectives on the basis of der die das, but according to what I want to say. When I say something mean, it’s not a statistical mean.

  28. Neither consciously nor unconsciously.

    By definition you can’t possibly know that.

  29. Stu Clayton says:

    I’m excluding the distinction or dichotomy as irrelevant here. It’s not a matter of knowing.

    But maybe you mean that I can know whether what someone else does is conscious or unconscious, but not with regard to myself. That would be a rather extravagant claim. The other way around makes more sense, or did so in the good ol’ days of introspection.

  30. Neither consciously nor unconsciously.

    By definition you can’t possibly know that.

    This is actually very easy. And related to what I’ve written upthread about ascribing a gender without external cues. Once in a while you miss and that’s how you know that you have done it unconsciously.

  31. Stu Clayton says:

    I can take a stab in the dark deliberately. There is no need to explain it as an unconscious stab.

  32. Eli Nelson says:

    I was a bit surprised when I first saw “dogs are covertly gendered as masculine, cats are covertly gendered as feminine” brought up as an example of covert gender in English. It seems to be a commonly repeated claim in linguistic literature, but I wonder to what extent it has been verified by studies. Personally, I feel like dogs and dog owners are stereotypically male, and cat owners are stereotypically female, but I feel much less certain that cats themselves are typically thought of as female by default (or at least, I’m not certain that I think of them this way). For example, I don’t remember if the first account I read of “Schrödinger’s cat” gave it an explicit gender, but I think of it as male. Witches (stereotypically female), stereotypically have cats as familiars, but I think the cat familiar itself is portrayed as male at least as often as not.

  33. Regarding stereotypes of cat owners, my father liked to quip that, “The only thing you could learn from the Schrödinger’s Cat gedanken experiment was that Schrödinger was not a cat person.”

  34. Stu Clayton says:

    I’m sure the feeling was mutual.

  35. January First-of-May says:

    The Russian situation for dogs is tricky because there are two Russian words for “dog”, one of them masculine (pyos) and one feminine (sobaka).
    Those are distinct from the specific words for “male dog” (kobel’) and “female dog” (suka, with effectively the same semantics as English “bitch”… which reminds me that apparently there’s no English word for “male dog”), but a dog referred to as pyos will more likely than not be male, and one referred to as sobaka will more likely than not be female (though this is the more generic word).

    Same for horses – you can use the masculine kon’ or the feminine loshad’, with no relation to the separate specific words for “stallion” (zherebets, and maybe merin, I forgot what the difference is) and “mare” (kobyla). Again, the feminine word happens to be more generic.

    As for cats… there’s a word for “female cat” (koshka) and a word for “male cat” (kot), and, IIRC, either (but more commonly the female one) can be used as a generic word for “cat”. (Unlike the dog and horse cases, which have four different roots each, those two are clearly related.)
    I think I’ve seen both version used for Schrödinger’s cat; no idea which was more common.

  36. Though it’s the male cat who doesn’t get Shrovetide.

  37. Let’s play LL and look up Russian National Corpus: кот has 5418 references and кошка has 4360. I would call it a draw. I am reluctant to speak for all Russian speakers, but unless it’s your pet or a prospective mate for your pet, people are not all that much interested in the gender of a dog or a cat they just see or hear about and select words for them at random.

  38. The technical English word for ‘male dog’ is in fact dog.

  39. David Marjanović says:

    German has one, Rüde, but it’s only ever used in the context of dog breeding.

  40. SFReader says:

    merin is a castrated zherebets.

  41. My impression is that the relationship between pyos and sobaka is similar to the one between “hound” and “dog” – the first of the pair is a more poetical / archaising word, the second is the everyday word. If Russian friends of mine would speak of a random dog in the street as “pyos”, I’d assume that either to be hyperbole or humour.

  42. German has one, Rüde, but it’s only ever used in the context of dog breeding.

    More differences between DE and AT German, it seems. Out walking the dog in Cologne, I hear many men saying Rüde, people in general saying Männchen. Some ladies, and only ladies, say “it’s a boy” (Junge).

    I discovered in Duden for bitch a number of “regional” words, one “antiquated”, that I had never encountered: Zaupe, Zauche, Zohe, Petze.

  43. I’d say bezdomnyi pyos rather than bezdomnyaya sobaka; and, of course, it’s Pyos Barbos i neobychainyi kross.

  44. David Marjanović says:

    More differences between DE and AT German, it seems.

    Fascinating. In my experience dogs are simply assumed to be male, and then the owner displays superior knowledge by saying “she only wants to play [with your shinbone]”.

    Petze

    *lightbulb moment*
    I know that word – but exclusively as “snitch”, “person who tells on fellow kids/inmates to the teachers/guards”. If it used to mean “bitch”, that explains its feminine gender! The verb petzen then falls into place as a back-formation.

  45. Yeah, the same light went on for me as well.

    Uh-oh, Duden gives this etymology for petzen: aus der Studentensprache, vielleicht ursprünglich gaunersprachlich, zu hebräisch pạẕạ̈ = den Mund aufreißen.

    The explanation “den Mund aufreißen” is not clear, though. Is “gape” meant, or (more likely) “open your trap [without being asked / at an inappropriate moment etc]” ?

    For Petze meaning “bitch” we are told: Herkunft ungeklärt. Sigh.

    For extra points: what is that diacritical parsley scattered over “paza” ?

  46. In Israeli Hebrew, xaˈtul “male cat” is the default, though I used to hear some using xaˈtula “female cat” as the default, which sounded uneducated to me. Since then I read that it’s a peculiarity of Jerusalem speech, but I might have heard it in Tel Aviv, too.

  47. Rodger C says:

    merin is a castrated zherebets.

    English “gelding.”

  48. David Marjanović says:

    The explanation “den Mund aufreißen” is not clear, though. Is “gape” meant, or (more likely) “open your trap [without being asked / at an inappropriate moment etc]” ?

    I’m sure the latter is a metaphorical extension of the former anyway…

  49. Stu Clayton says:

    But it raises questions, possibly factitious due to mere carelessness on the part of the lemmatiste, about the meaning of Hebrew “paza”. Is it too derived from a word for “gape” ? Or does it mean “gape” without the connotations of “speak out of turn” ? Or something else, like plain old petzen ?

    Duden entries usually explain the “original meaning” of a root most readers will not know, for example when it’s OHG.

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