Second Language Acquisition–Harder Than You Expect

Here’s something to rattle off the next time you hear someone say, “I want to learn a little French“:

Children need seven or eight years of intensive immersion to speak like a native. These years must start by about age 10, to fit them all in by age 17 or 18, when there’s a sharp drop in the rate of learning. (He’s not sure whether this drop is caused by changes in the brain or in circumstances).
And native speakers keep perfecting their grammar into their 20s. They reach a level called “asymptote,” when they’re not getting noticeably better, by around age 30, the study found. (But vocabulary peaks at about age 60, according to a study in Psychological Science. That’s probably because native speakers have had time to accumulate lots of words, and they haven’t started forgetting them.)


Why It’s So Hard to Learn French in Middle Age

This supports an observation I’ve made over the past decade of language teaching: vocabulary is dynamic and fluid.


… every day you’re not using a language, you’re losing it.

We tend to talk about vocabulary as if it were a static body of knowledge that can be acquired and put on the shelf. But as someone who reads and teaches everyday, I find myself encountering words all the time that I used to know, yet no longer do. At the same time, new words have entered my vocabulary that I didn’t used to know. This indicates a repertoire of knowledge that is constantly in a state of flux. We lose words everyday. That means every day you’re not using a language, you’re losing it.

And your peak level might not last. I used to interview people in Portuguese; now the language merely sounds familiar. Most of what remains from three years of Japanese is a haiku I learned for extra credit in high school.

Why It’s So Hard to Learn French in Middle Age

This also indicates that in order to learn a new language you have to put yourself in an environment where you are learning more words than you are forgetting every single day. Few environments short of complete immersion will satisfy such a requirement.

And though I live in France, I’m not immersed enough. I use French for work, but I speak lots of English too, including with my kids and husband. I don’t have an “école horizontale” — a romantic partner with whom I speak only French.
I’ve tried to compensate by periodically taking French courses. And most mornings, I circle unknown words in Le Monde, then transfer them to sticky notes above my desk. But I recently discovered three notes reminding me that “ras-le-bol” means “fed up.”
“Nothing seems to work as well as just speaking the language all the time,” Dr. Hartshorne said.

Why It’s So Hard to Learn French in Middle Age

The article Pinker references in his tweet examined over 600,000 native speakers to determine the age at which the ability to acquire grammar declines. The finding implicates a much later closure of the window than previously believed (17-18 years old). A window that closes at such a late age suggests neurological changes that result from a decline in plasticity or hormonal changes that occur at puberty could not play as large a role as previously hypothesized. So, while the study confirms the existence of a critical period of acquisition for second languages, it raises a number of other questions.

The plot thickens …

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