age and the ability to acquire new things – even language

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: