Age and the ability to acquire new things - even language.

20 Feb 2011
Posted by dvlong

Two things have happened this week to encourage me to write about this topic. The first was an adult student who visited our Thai Program for a few hours and left with the feeling that I was selling a scam under the name of the AUA Language Center. This rarely happens, and never to my knowledge has anyone been this closed-minded and negative toward us. The second was Patricia's Ted Talk - the main point being that children are so wonderfully 'open' to the world around them.

Does our ability to learn a language fall off the charts as we reach puberty?


According to Patrica Kuhl in her talk entiled, "The linguistic genius of babies" it would seem so. Dr. Kuhl is an excellent public speaker, and is doing some important research in the field of language and education. She is also a very gracious person, an opinion I hold from both meeting her personally and email correspondence we share.

Drawing attention to her closing comment, 

 "Just as the poets and writers described, we're going to be able to see, I think, that wondrous openness, utter and complete openness, of the mind of a child. In investigating the child's brain, we're going to uncover deep truths about what it means to be human, and in the process, we may be able to help keep our own minds open to learning for our entire lives." 

is fantastic! and I agree. We need to find ways as adults, to stay open and allow our assumptions to be challenged always.

And what I think is not so fantastic is the assumptions underlying her entire research. Patricia shows a slide of a chart entilted: "Language exhibits a 'Critical Period'" and then goes on to say,

"What this mother -- and the 800 people who speak Koro in the world -- understand that, to preserve this language, they need to speak it to the babies. And therein lies a critical puzzle. Why is it that you can't preserve a language by speaking to you and I, to the adults? Well, it's got to do with your brain. What we see here is that langauge has a critical period for learning."

I have trouble with her use of the word, "can't" in her third sentence. That's a pretty big assumption. If she had used 'don't', or even 'won't' I probably wouldn't be writing at the moment. For well over 30 years, thanks to the work of Steven Krashen, we've known that the ONLY way to acquire a language is through understandable input! So my question is, Why is it that we don't preserve, learn, or pass on new languages by speaking to the learner?

She then goes on to make the huge step, which seems to me totally unsuported by any research, that 1) it's got to do with your brain, and 2) there is a critical period for learning language! Why don't these old assumptions just up and die? Perhaps because as Patricia points out, "No scientists dispute this curve, but laboratories all over the world are trying to figure out why it works this way." It would be more scientific to dispute, not the curve, but the assertion that we 'can't' learn in the same way.


Dr. J. Marvin Brown in the introduction to his book, "From the Outside In" tells the story of Zambi:

 "Zambi came from the village of Makui in central Africa a hundred years ago and her parents arranged for her to marry a man in the village of Mujambi, which spoke a completely different language. She arrived there not knowing a word of Mujambi and nobody there knew any Makui - not even her husband. During the day, while her husband was hunting with the other men, the women took Zambi along with them as they did their basket weaving and gardening. At night everybody sat around the fire and listened to stories. Zambi’s daily life could be described as ‘silently tagging along’. After a year of this she understood almost everything that went on around her and could say a few words and phrases. After 2 years she was quite fluent, and after 3 or 4 years she was almost like a native Mujambi villager."

and he summarizes by saying:

 "We don’t have to go to the Africa of 100 years ago to find people using Zambi’s way. We all used it ourselves. That’s how we learned our native language: tagging along without trying to say anything for the first year. It works for children. It worked for Zambi. Why doesn’t it work for everyone? The common belief is that we lose the child’s secret as we grow up. But what about Zambi? The answer seems to lie in the second part: not trying to say anything for the first year."

Asking the question, "Can the adult brain acquire of a new language-culture?" is like asking, "Can an adult brain gain new experience? Turn Patricia's whole scenario around, with a Chinese mother sitting her infant down in front of a classroom, trying desperately to get her to 'speak' and practice saying things, we'd all be fairly certain that within a single generation, not one person would be living who could effectively speak the language! 

I think that openness implies more than an open mind. Openness of heart, as well of all 5 senses is vital as well. It's a way of thinking, as well as a state of mind. As adult language education seeks to focus the learner on aspects of language, it's no wonder that most people never make sense of a second language. How could anyone put all those 'pieces' together? Our experience has been that those who are really open, whether children or adults, gain amazing benefits and one of these is language - which emerges naturally as a person accumulates experience in a particular culture and language setting - and this is something that even the Chinese Koro speaking mother knows.

It's refreshing to see the comments following the video of those who simply don't believe that adults cannot still acquire language through experience. There are too many of us who have. Perhaps one day, and not so far in the future, we can set aside this old assumption that adult learning must be characterized by hard work, study and in the case of language, hours of practice and begin to use methods for learning that really make sense! 

(for some interesting reading about the human brain and it's capabilities, go to:

MGH, I appreciate your

MGH, I appreciate your detailed comments. I'm sure we could speak for hours. There are a few observations that I'd like to make:

Stephen Krashen is the most well-read, well-studied person in his field that I know. The assertion by Isaac Cubillos that, "I discovered that Dr. Krashen has done no research." is simply false. Perhaps Cubillos wrote that before 1984 when our Thai program began, but if not, he's also wrong to state, "there are no schools where it's been proved".

All anyone has are theories.

I find it interesting that, "most students studying at AUA also pursue other avenues..." and "I don't think too many students take the view that they will become fluent in Thai just with ALG" is completely consistent with the data we keep. Invariably those who do best, are those who spend time gaining the input first and then if they wish, go on to more explicit types of learning.




From Stephen Krashen on the

From Stephen Krashen on the subject:Patricia Kuhl does wonderful research on the neurology of child language acquisition, but steps outside her field of expertise when discussing adults. My attempt to set the record straight, sent July, 2009.  No response.  Dear Dr. Kuhl: In "Neural Substrates of Language Acquisition" you conclude with the question of whether techniques can be developed to help adults acquire second languages. Since I last talked you (we had coffee at an Acoustic Society Meeting I think in 1971) my colleagues and I have devoted quite a lot of time and energy to this question.  What we have found is that there are a lot of similarities between child and adult language acquisition, they both require the same ingredient: comprehension of messages, and the role of the subconscious is much larger than the role of the conscious mind in both. In a recent article carried on yahoo news, you are quoted as saying this about adult second language acquisition: "You won't learn it in the same way. You won't become (as good as) a native speaker."   In at least some ways, the first is not true, according to our research. The second is generally true, but adults reach very high levels of competence in second language acquisition. I am sure you don't have time to look into this extensively, because of your on-going (and brilliant!!) research, but of course I'll be happy to send you books, papers, etc.  Two books I wrote near the beginning of this research are available on my website, w w w . Let's do coffee again sometime.   Sincerely, Steve Krashen cc: colleagues, teachers 

Hi David, Thanks for your

Hi David,

Thanks for your email about Patricia Kuhl's TED talk which I watched and your blog response to it.


Here's my take:


Broadly I agree with Kuhl's position with regard to a critical period which is backed by not only her own research, but also a considerable amount of other research. This critical period research applies not only with regard to early infant language learning but also research on the development of perfect pitch and its variance across different 1st language groups. In short there is a critical period and it is a critical period that can't be wished away.


In your blog you talk of the assumption underlying her research but to me this seems less like an assumption than a reasonable conclusion based on empirical evidence. You talk of her making an assertion, but her assertion is based on objective research using control groups. To counter this you provide a second hand anecdotal example quoted by Marvin Brown of a single experience in Africa ( I doubt there was any control here nor peer review!)


Rather than providing new evidence based research you simply trot out the old arguments of Krashen's input theory ( or prior to that if memory serves there was something called the silent method and Krashen also called it the natural approach). Your plea for open mindedness doesn't seem to extend to your own field as you state For well over 30 years, thanks to the work of Steven Krashen, we've known that the ONLY way to acquire a language is through understandable input! (your capitals)


You skate over the fact that Krashen's theory has been widely challenged see for example: Gregg (1984), Mclaughlin (1987), Ellis(1985)) and contradicted by field studies . See Merrill Swain (1985) Nancy Dorian (1981).


Whilst Krashen's academic critics see the merits in the input they dispute the totality of the theory, its lack of scientific or field study validation and its sweeping assumptions . As Gregg stated 'each of Krashen's hypotheses is marked by serious flaws: undefinable or ill-defined terms, unmotivated constructs, lack of empirical content.


The application of Krashen's theories on the ground have been even more controversial ( as I am sure you are aware!) and the non academic critics somewhat more forthright in their criticisms : I discovered that Dr. Krashen has done no research. It is purely a theory. There is no test data, there are no schools where it's been proved, and it's based on thin air. Isaac Cubillos.

Of course I don't mean to suggest that comprehensible input is not essential and indeed the main pillar to language learning, nor that the cultural context of language & meaning which comes through in input method (particularly from the teachers at AUA) is not also essential to that learning (assuming the goal is fluency). The central point is to do with the differences between the way the child and adult brain process sound. The child brain enables natural reproduction, the adult brain, a wealth of field studies and more recent lab research suggest has somehow lost that ability. This may be sad for us adult language learners, and an inconvenient truth for the ALG method but in the same way a baby's bones have a rubbery softness when young but become hard as the child grows no amount of wishful thinking and belief will make those bones go rubbery again!

As an additional point on this I would mention that the hearing acuity of children is hugely superior to adults at the top end of the sound spectrum . This is why the ultra sonic security device known as the mosquito works on children but can't be heard by adults . No amount of open heart or open mind will allow most adults to hear it however much they might wish it!

What is really missing in the AUA Thai course is the third pillar of language learning to fluency : Engaging in extensive speaking activities with native language speakers . A process which should be carried out by serious language students both with teachers and non teachers from an early stage. I agree with Greg Thomson (1993)

that massive comprehensible input can result in people having the ability to understand a language without necessarily being able to speak it well, or even to speak it at all

I also take the view that the speaking practice should involve correction (the degree of correction can be judged by a good teacher) and that the teachers should clearly understand how the speech organs are used. After all when a singing coach or voice coach works with a client this is central to their method. Most 2nd language Thai speakers and most Thai English speakers produce an approximation of their second language based on their 1st language vocal organs position. As Wilga Rivers famously stated:

"Unless the teacher understands how the student is using his speech organs in producing a native language sound and what he should be doing to reproduce the foreign language sound acceptably, he cannot help the student beyond a certain stage of earnest but inaccurate imitation." [Teaching Foreign Language Skills]

Having had the pleasure of watching at first hand Stuart Jay Raj work with English speaking learners of Thai and the speed with which they reproduce Thai sounds (rather than English approximations) and very good English teachers in the UK work with Japanese students on the same basis I think that any method that doesn't incorporate this aspect of language teaching is likely to fall short of native like fluency with adults.

Don't get me wrong, input is crucial or central to language learning. And I would never want to advocate learning a language with grammar textbooks in the way I learnt Latin & French but the idea that the ALG method can produce fluency is I am afraid to say an out dated, non evidence based theory which is widely discredited. The comparisons made between child and adult learning in your literature are, for the reasons stated above, flawed . The time taken by the method before speaking makes it pretty inefficient and comparisons to rubber plantations while folksy marketing are hardly serious academic material!

Thankfully it seems most students studying at AUA also pursue other avenues (whether informal or formal) to language learning alongside the ALG method offered. The Teachers at AUA are great, input in the target language ( and cultural input ) essential, which is why I am there, but I don't think too many students take the view that they will become fluent in Thai just with ALG at least not the ones I have talked to.

Then again even after ships sailed round the globe some still believed the world was flat.

Kind Regards




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