Quirks of Fate in Learning Foreign Languages: ……………… Article on Brain Development Effects on Learning Foreign Languages

There’s a dandy article on ex-pats varying abilities and interests in learning Spanish at Marc Olson’s blog: Language Learning: Why Bother?
Marc was a foreign language teacher who offers some superb insights to the links between learning Spanish and really getting to know Mexican culture and Mexicans.

Hopefully, Mr. Olson is not offended by a little cross-pollination between blogs, because his article got our neurons firing and filled our synapses with excellent neuro-transmitters, while considering his observations about expats and learning Spanish. Yucalandia tends towards the analytical and physical, which leads to some different perspectives.
Here goes nothin’…

Physiological brain development effects seem to explain many of Marc’s and his poster’s excellent observations about peoples varying abilities and interest in learning a foreign language. In my perception, the main article and many of the comments have been sprinkled-with or at least shaded-by or shaped-by some subtle but judgmental comparisons between people who are working with very different basic brain tools and abilities, creating personal perspectives that could be altered by seeing foreign language learning through the lens of each of our own unique brain physiologies, personal histories, and personal experiences.

There is one key period in life that seriously pre-determines our abilities to learn and speak foreign languages: ages 11 – 15/16. Our brains start significant physical rewiring at around age 11 and do not finish the process until around age 26.** Roughly, during the period between ages 11 and 15, our brains go through an ongoing unique use-it-or-lose-it process, where the person must develop and use a skill, or likely they will “lose it” for life. Whole areas of abilities are grown or pruned-away depending on usage between ages 11 and 15 (mas o meno).

If you were not exposed to foreign languages or learning foreign languages until after age 15 or 16, then the person will likely have real physiological limitations on their ability to pick-up and naturally speak a foreign language. Since important brain re-wiring and development is mostly done by age 27, if someone does not attempt to learn a foreign language by age 28, they will likely have great difficulty learning new languages the rest of their life.

There are notable exceptions to this arm-chair analysis of physiological brain development: The brain’s dura mater continues to grow well into our 70’s, and the numbers of interconnections and cross-linking between internal brain neurons continues well into our 70’s, as long as we excercise, stretch, and use our brains.

Competing Effects: Physical speed of brain processing slows gradually and continuously after about age 27, but concomitant increases in dura mater thickness & penetration into the brain, and the growth of the brain’s internal interconnections (a.k.a. experience and experiences ) balance the losses in raw cognitive processing powers (diminishing calculational speed and fact retrieval speed), giving average people the best combination of processing power and experience/wisdom at roughly age 45. By age 70 – 75, most average people’s brain power has diminished noticably. One notable exception to these trends are the active brains of the top 10% of the distribution, who still solve problems and perform on mental tests as well as the top 10% of 20-25 year olds. Bright seniors solve the problems very differently and generally more creatively than 20-somethings, bringing experiential knowledge and creative cross-connections developed over decades, even though their memory retreival times are much longer.

These biological facts play heavily into determining the varying learning aptitudes and appetites Marc & others describe: There are groups of people who just did not develop any foreign language skills by age 16, and a number of experts report that they will never become “fluent” and facile in speaking a foreign language.

The people who were fortunate enough to focus some substantial bits of their teenage resources on other languages, built a good physiological brain platform for future foreign language learning and use, and they have that foundation and platform to trot around on the rest of their lives.

An Anomoly or Another Consequence of Brain Physiology and Foreign Language Learning:
The children who learned a foreign language and spoke it well, before age 11, (particularly those who learned it during the 2-5 year old period of rapid learning & pruning), but who did not actively use the language after age 10, often report not knowing or not speaking the language as adults. These things are not laziness nor lack of will power, just physical limitations.

Bright people who partly learned and partly used a foreign language as a teen, can learn one when older, especially in memory-driven tasks like building large vocabularies, and they can have very creative insights into the mechanics of a foreign language, but it will take much greater effort and persistence to make modest gains in actually speaking and writing the language (compare reading skills vs. conversational or writing skills, where reading Spanish can be a snap compared to forming sentences).

In my perception, Mr. Olson’s article and many of the comments have been sprinkled-with or at least shaded-by or shaped-by some subtle but judgmental comparisons between people who are working with very different basic brain tools and abilities, and the reader may now be seeing things a bit differently.

Do we expect an electronic’s tech to install and fix plumbing? Look in the plumber’s tool kit: pipe wrenches, hole saws, pipe cutters, and a hack saw ( needed for foreign language/plumbing) are necessary to install a toilet or sink, Similarly, the plumber’s tools are just not suited to measuring impedences, resistances, or voltages, or for doing fine-work. Yes, the electronics guy and the plumber both have screwdrivers, pliers, and soldering equipment, but pipe soldering skills only nominally transfer to soldering circuit board components, and tiny specialized electronics pliers can’t replace big Channelocks. The obverse works similarly: the electronics guy will likely leave lots of leaks in his wake.

This crude metaphor desribes how it looks like people have the same brains and same tools, (screwdrivers, pliers, cutters and torches), while they really are not equipped to do the same tasks. The language plumber, who easily intuits where to cut the hole in the wall, will have great difficulty learning & doing electronics, and the electronics tech will have to get out his tape measure, pencil, and paper to figure out where to cut.

Similarly, the teen who practiced and learned a foreign language, and then used it (especially in immersion situations) really does have it much much much easier when learning or re-learning the foreign language than older learners. Expecting older learners to pick up natural speaking of a foreign language (especially when first attempting after age 50) is sort of like asking a 250 pound 50 year old guy to run sub 4 hour marathons.

For those who have the “gift” of languages, imagine trying to step onto the dias and clean & jerk 400 pounds. Maybe after 5 years of hard regular efforts & training, you could do it.

I offer these things to encourage, build, and grow more understanding, acceptance, and tolerance between people on the very peculiar issues of learing foreign languages.

Overall, Mr. Olson gives us a dandy thought provoking and insightful article !

Keep Learing Spanish !
Keep Learing Spanish!
If you are struggling, just realize that some people are pre-programmed to learn it easily and build their skills exponentially, while others just have to persistently plug & chug to make modest progress.

Even slow progress is well worth the effort.

**Sidelight: I personally think the ongoing physiological re-wiring of the brain until age 26 or 27 much explains why the people whom we marry at age 20-22, often turn into somewhat different people by age 30 or 32. By age 28, we finally have a stable consistent brain platform to work with, and that is the age when we also (coincidentally?) as adults, begin to pick and choose between the “internal rules” that society has given us as to how we should act and our own native sensibilities. With a finally stable platform, (versus the pitching yawing deck of the 11-26 year old brain), when we reach ages 28 and 32, we can identify the key bits of our adult selves, and toss away the “internal rules” of others that don’t fit us. This process mostly completes these big cycles of brain and personality changes. In other words, we can know someone really well when we & they are age 20-22, but by age 33, we can wake-up and wonder: Just who is this person laying in bed beside me??? because both you and they changed. (This last stuff is my own personal thesis, and I have no data nor studies to back it up. The other stuff above represents brain development research findings & understandings as of about 2 years ago.)

* * * *
Feel free to copy while giving proper attribution: YucaLandia/Surviving Yucatan.
© Steven M. Fry

Read on, MacDuff!

7 Responses to Quirks of Fate in Learning Foreign Languages: ……………… Article on Brain Development Effects on Learning Foreign Languages

  1. Pingback: Quirks of Fate in Learning Foreign Languages: on Brain Development Effects | Surviving Yucatan

  2. Marc says:

    Hi Steve:

    I appreciate the chance for “cross pollination” between blogs. As I commented in response to your comments on my posts:

    As a teacher, I spent many years working with children and young adults with a huge range of abilities. What I discovered was that nearly all, excepting a few with serious disabilities, could gain some level of competence in any subject matter, given motivation, time and adaptations that would allow them to use their particular learning strengths. I think this also holds for older adults.

    My main point (to which I dedicated most of my post) was that there is much to be gained, for people who choose to live in Mexico, by learning some Spanish. If I made any judgment, it was that foreigners who move to Mexico and live here are missing a huge chunk of living if they don’t try to learn some basic Spanish and enjoy all the place has to offer. My opinion is that if they moved here because it’s cheap and do not care to interact with their Mexican neighbors (and as I have witnessed in some cases, seriously misunderstand and/or actively disrespect the people and the culture), that’s pretty sad. I think most all of them can learn enough Spanish, if they feel like it, to participate and understand a bit about their neighbors and the culture.

    Again, thanks for reading my blog and contributing all of the interesting information. I am now a new follower of your blog.

  3. Eric Chaffee says:

    I know whereof you speak. In my thirties I enrolled in a masters program at a prominent university’s divinity school. One of the requirements stipulated for receiving the degree was for the candidate to demonstrate a sight reading ability from scripture in an ancient language. Thinking that I had done ok with Latin in high school, I attempted to learn Biblical Hebrew, which is written from right to left in a non-Roman script. Ouch!

    Short story version: I dropped out. Irony: several years later the school dropped that requirement. (I can, and still do, parse Greek in an amateurish fashion with the help of reference books, but sight reading takes major processing power, especially to read “backwards” as in Hebrew.)

    On the wisdom of marrying late, Mary and I tied the knot when I was 29 (she 30), and we’ve just passed año 35.


    • yucalandia says:

      Wonderful stuff !

      Ancient Hebrew thinking/perspectives sees things through very different contexts, and the lack of vowels adds to the right-to-left complications. There are reasons that the area is called the Middle East, even though they are geographically due south of Europe: lots more allegorical and metaphorical perspectives/spins and less literal/legalistic than English.

      Congrats on 35 good years !

  4. Nick m says:

    Facinating! I happen to fall into the preteen exposed to learning language category. Now at 25 I’m re-learning Spanish and I can concurr with the results described above. I know people 60+ that are learning the language without any prior exposure and it is dramatically more challenging for them. This article explains why

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