Førti År Sen

The good news:  research shows that the old theory that “if you start leaning a language after age eight, you’ve got no chance of reaching fluency”.  (I started German at fourteen).

The bad news:  The new cuitoff is 18.

The older you get the more difficult it is to learn to speak French like a Parisian. But no one knows exactly what the cutoff point is—at what age it becomes harder, for instance, to pick up noun-verb agreements in a new language. In one of the largest linguistics studies ever conducted—a viral internet survey that drew two thirds of a million respondents—researchers from three Boston-based universities showed children are proficient at learning a second language up until the age of 18, roughly 10 years later than earlier estimates. But the study also showed that it is best to start by age 10 if you want to achieve the grammatical fluency of a native speaker.

To parse this problem, the research team, which included psychologist Steven Pinker, collected data on a person’s current age, language proficiency and time studying English. The investigators calculated they needed more than half a million people to make a fair estimate of when the “critical period” for achieving the highest levels of grammatical fluency ends. So they turned to the world’s greatest experimental subject pool: the internet.

So I guess starting Norwegian a year ago February isn’t going to get me there.

14 thoughts on “Førti År Sen

  1. This is a big so what. The fact of the matter is unless you live someplace where the language is spoken primarily, if not exclusively, you won’t speak it as a native anyway. Almost regardless of age (almost because there are exceptional circumstances). And here’s a curiosity: you can lose that native accent if you move away before it’s set in.

    I believe there to be a Gaussian-like curve of language abilities so that there are some people who are gifted with language skills who may be able to do learn a language well enough to fool the natives at almost any age – as well as there are those who cannot get rid of the native accent regardless.

    You should learn Norwegian because you want to, Mitch, and eff all the types that find problems with it. Trust me, in Scandinavia, they are so charmed that someone actually learned (one of) their language(s), they’ll cut you all sorts of slack.

  2. My daughter was able to pick up passable Czech during her two years in Prague, which is a very difficult language to learn. Not enough to pass as a native of course. To use one of their idioms, her language “crawls from you like a hairy blanket.”

  3. NW, that’s a heckuva’n idiom. Excellent. I think that one of best parts of learning foreign languages is the idioms.

    In Dutch, the phrase people use to get together and talk is, if I remember, “let’s go wash a pig”. In Danish, when you want to state that there’s no problem, you say “there’s no cow on the ice”.

  4. German – something makes you cranky and upset, it “Makes your nose full”.

  5. Sad to say I’m far past 18 and still wrestling to some degree with English, although I was born and raised here it’s unlikely I’ll ever fully master it.

  6. Once, an apparently well-mannered young man was introduced to her and, not knowing she spoke Czech, must have thought it would be funny to make a very lewd and aggressive suggestion to her in Czech while smiling innocently at her. Something very unfunny just about happened to him. No doubt it served as an important life lesson for him.

  7. Another favorite Czech idiom is the refer to the middle of nowhere as “the place where foxes say goodnight.”

    In Danish, that’s the place from which the crows turn around and return home.

  8. NW, did someone nearly learn the hard way about someone’s black belt in martial arts, if I remember right?

    I second the notion of Scandinavians appreciating people learning their language. I made good friends with a Finnish coworker by naming a cart for nonconforming material the “Paska-auto”. It translates somewhat more crudely than “manure cart.”

  9. Night,

    That’s always funny when that happens.

    While I was in the Air Force, I was in Germany for a month. One of the women in the maintenance squadron I was attached to, was an Air Force brat, whose mom was from Hamburg. Her dad married her and they moved to the states to her dad’s hometown in Iowa after he got out, so she grew up there from age 5.. Consequently, she spoke both English and German like natives. After work one evening, about 6 of us went out to a local bier hall for happy hour. We were all in uniform, so a couple of the locals next to us, assumed that we were all Americans, so they started disparaging us. Our companion was doing a slow burn, but finally, she had enough and lit into them, in German, basically telling them that they shouldn’t be so stupid. Needless to say, they got very quiet and moved away from us, to our great amusement.

  10. In a few years, bothering to learn a foreign language will seem as quaint as using a slide rule to solve math problems.

    We will have universal translators built into our Beatz headphones.

    Of course, that won’t help illiterate immigrants from third world shit holes, so we will still have to print ballots in fifty languages they can’t read.

  11. On the bright side, recent research suggests that the memories of your ancestors are stored in your cells. So keep working at the Norsk, Mitch. It’s in your DNA.

  12. Bubba, there was a about an 8% chance that the man’s meaning was “lost in translation”, so lung removal was deferred – but what might have been a pleasant evening of sociability was irretrievably lost. The look on the man’s face when my daughter addressed a comment to another companion in Czech was almost worth it.

    On another occasion, though, a female co-worker gave my daughter a sneak-attack grope – and instantly found herself with a forearm in her throat and a fist poised two-feet from her face, and a perfectly pronounced, “DON’T TOUCH ME” (in Czech) ringing in her ears. The woman decided to “pursue other opportunities” with other employers within a couple of days. There are a lot of ways of communicating.

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