How the Brain is Badly Wired

Those of us who try to learn our first foreign language as an adult are at a huge disadvantage. I’m not just talking about the common knowledge that languages are harder for adults to learn than children. (This is news to no one.) I’m talking about actual scientific evidence that monolingual brains simply aren’t wired for it.

It turns out that even high school is too late for monolinguals to start learning a language. (News to approximately zero high school students and teachers.) Middle school too. Experts are now saying preschool or kindergarten — before age 7 — is the last best opportunity to learn a second language. By that age the “electrical language pathways” in the brain have solidified, after which it starts becoming difficult to make new ones.

Seven-year-olds have hardly mastered their first language, so how can we be talking about a second one already?? Well, this isn’t vocabulary or correctness or even intelligence we’re talking about; it’s the simple physical ability to differentiate among sounds. This is where adults have a hard time: with their ears being able to hear sounds that don’t exist in their native language, and with their tongues being able to reproduce those sounds.

Here’s the gist: Apparently our brain circuitry for language is established in infancy. The brain of a 6-month-old baby can recognize all the sounds that make up all the languages in the world, and will respond equally to them, but shortly after this age they begin selecting only the ones they hear most frequently. Their brains begin “pruning” the neural connections no longer needed. By 10 months of age already, babies who have not yet been exposed to a foreign language will simply filter it out when hearing one for the first time. Their brains treat the foreign sounds as “noise” and don’t respond to them. This selective hearing process and pathway pruning continues until the ripe old age of — you guessed it — seven.

Babies exposed to two or more languages from the beginning, however, treat them as equally important inputs. When they hear any of these sounds their brains light up, synapses firing. Those neural pathways are preserved. For life, maybe. There’s evidence indicating that even if a second language lies dormant for many years, it can be revived in adulthood rather easily. There’s also evidence pointing to the rapid ability to learn a third, fourth, fifth language for people who are already bilingual.

SebSpongeBrick

Left: Your brain as a 6-month-old baby / Right: Your brain as a well-aged 7-year-old….. (Seb’s own fancy artwork)

Alas, I must have been one of those babies surrounded exclusively by English. Which makes sense, being born in Kansas and all. Trying to learn French now is like doing constant battle with my brain, prodding it to stay alert, forcing it to pay attention when all it wants to do is tune out, relax, and wait for someone to come along and translate for me anything that must be important. In fact if I don’t work diligently I find that it’s trying to imagine English words, no matter how ridiculous, out of certain French sounds. Like hearing a syllable that sounds like “pie” and picturing one in my head, even though I know we’re not talking about pie. (A silly example, and one that I think I’ve finally outgrown, but you get my point.)

Each time I sit down for a focused French lesson, I find that my poor little monolingual brain gets pooped pretty easily. Like after 20 minutes I need a break. I’ve also found myself extremely hungry during these study sessions… thinking this hard is apparently a good calorie burn! Disadvantaged brains must require a lot of fuel. Maybe that’s why I’m picturing a pie.

SebPie

Mmm, pie. (Seb’s drawing skillz)

Why the heck am I writing this, anyway… am I trying to discourage people from studying a second language as an adult? For those of us born in a monolingual environment, with brains that are pre-wired to reject foreign sounds, doesn’t it sound like there’s no hope??

Quite the opposite. There IS hope, once you separate fact from fiction. What stops most of us when the going gets tough is the false idea that we’re too old to learn, that we’re just no good at this language learning business. That is fiction. That others seem to have a much easier time because they’re “gifted” or “smarter” is also fiction, because chances are they had much different early language experiences than us. Let them go! Compare yourself only with other monolinguals. You’ll see that it’s hard for all of us.

Why should that be motivating, you ask? Because it relieves pressure. We have no control over how our brains are wired. So don’t give up. Laugh at your inability to differentiate “i” from “e” or to pronounce the French “r.” Most people have the same problem! Shrug it off. Have faith that with enough time and practice it will come — because it will — but in the meantime it signifies nothing about your talent or intelligence.

I took an informal poll around here, at the base camp of an American mining company in French-speaking Congo. The vast majority of expats show up here with the best intentions to learn French… and then give up pretty quickly. Not having enough time to put into it is one thing, and completely understandable, especially if there isn’t a pressing motivation to keep going. (Most business here, especially at the higher levels, is conducted in English.) But most expats informally polled said they would have liked to learn French but they found it too hard, too strange to their American ears. They called it off, assuming they were no good at it.

I think most of us assume that some people are gifted at foreign languages while others are not, just like some people are good at math while others are good at art. If we’ve never tried a foreign language before, we have no idea if we’re going to be in the “gifted” category or not. So as soon as we start our first lessons we’re on high alert to figure this out before any further unnecessary humiliation. If we feel we’re struggling too much, which is inevitable, then we’re likely to give up.

But our assumption that we must not be gifted is false. When pretty much anyone first learns to play the clarinet, they make only horrible squeaks for the first six months.

So that’s why I’m writing this. Not to demotivate anyone; just the opposite. When you find that your chosen second language is hard to learn, remember that it’s supposed to be. If you can see that it’s not your age, talent, nor self-perceived “lack” of intelligence, but rather just the way your brain is wired along with billions of others, you can more easily knock down what I think is the first barrier to language learning, and that is not having enough patience with yourself.

Squeak away, future clarinet maestros!


Sources:

Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language (The New York Times, October 10 2011)

Babies Prove Sound Learners (Society for Science, January 16 2008) 

If you don’t believe me about being able to overcome what sounds like a pretty significant disadvantage, read Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book, David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants


P.S. Over the years I have gone back and edited old posts from time to time, whether to clarify thoughts (hindsight is 20/20) or to correct minor errors. In this case, I added quite a bit and removed an entire paragraph, but I would feel irresponsible erasing it completely since some comments below refer to it. So here’s the deleted paragraph, which originally came after “Why the heck am I writing this, anyway… am I trying to discourage people from studying a second language as an adult??” No. Lots of people with badly wired brains have overcome this disadvantage and reached fluency, albeit with lots of hard work. Many more have become functional (albeit with lots of errors) relatively quickly. It can be done, but I suspect it’s easier if you have realistic expectations going into it. That’s why I think I failed miserably at my first attempt, Spanish. I thought it would have been easy, and was incredibly dismayed when I found that it wasn’t. Today I still struggle with my immature expectations to speak French perfectly… which is impossible and keeps me from speaking at all. Counterproductive.

8 comments

  1. Why are you obsessing on speaking French perfectly? The French don’ t speak Textbook French perfectly, just as Americans don’t speak English perfectly, etc. I think you should be focused on understanding and being understood. THAT is communication. Language is just a tool. A suggestion: have you tried listening to the language on headphones without having to make a response? Like an audiobook? That way you will be hearing and learning the sounds of the language passively.

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    1. Exactly, I was trying to make the point that I shouldn’t be obsessing over perfection, thus the terms “immature” and “counterproductive.” However, I’m rereading my sentence now and think it could be much more clear. I shouldn’t have said “it keeps me from speaking at all” but instead that it CAN stop me — it depends on the person or situation and how intimidated I feel. I do actually speak French a lot! Maybe I assumed everybody knew that from my previous writings. But around certain others… when you realize you’re screwing up a lot and sounding like an idiot, it can be hard to want to continue speaking at that moment.
      I’m taking a leap of faith that writing about my own struggles and thoughts, however weird, might strike a chord with others who have experienced or are experiencing the same thing. If I can make fun of myself, maybe others will lighten up on themselves.
      I agree with you on the “passive” approach, which is something not a lot of other programs or schools I’ve been to have discussed. I fall asleep nearly every night to a French podcast, hoping it will sink into my dreams!

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  2. It’s not good to beat yourself up too much, but to the first comment, striving for something better is seldom a bad thing. Wanting to be good is part of being you.

    FWIW, I enjoy this blog and always at least scan each post. Keep writing. CBT

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    1. Ah but self-flogging is so much fun! 😉 Thanks Carl, ‘preciate the support. You strike me as a polyglot, by the way, would love to hear some tips!

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  3. That is good to know. I’m really trying to teach the girls Spanish. The problem is that they have no interest in learning!

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    1. Yeah, early exposure is one thing, studying is another! I’m sure they know quite a bit already, but are they shy to speak it? If yes, I find that interesting, even at their young age, it’s like they intuitively know they sound less fluent. (I’ve heard this about other kids too.)

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  4. So did I reached fluency with lots of hard work or did I became functional with lots of errors relatively quickly? I will say something in between, medium work with medium error and medium time…

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