Because I was born in a small country, a country that was controlled for more than 40 years by a big superpower before the superpower imploded as they all eventually do, the first foreign language that I started learning in fourth grade at the age of nine was Russian. Although I had no choice in the matter, I remember that I was very excited as a child when I started learning the Cyrillic alphabet and then started learning my first words and putting together short sentences in another language that was eerily similar to mine, although quite different too. It was almost like being in first grade and learning the second time around that the letter “e” stands for the first letter of the word “electricity”.
As a child I didn’t quite understand the point of trying to speak another language. Why bother when you already have a perfectly good language of your own? But I thought it was fun and I was willing to play along.
All children are naturally predisposed to play along while learning another language, although perhaps only up until a certain age. I saw proof of that when about 30 years after my first exposure to a foreign language, my wife tried to teach my son Japanese when we lived in California.
Based on a game that Japanese mothers invented for teaching their language to children who are beginning to understand a language but can’t speak very well yet, she would say to him something like: “Casey-chan no o-hana wa doko desuka?” (Where is Casey’s nose?) She would then start looking at him expectantly, while Casey was looking back at her with a confused, baby look on his face, because at first he obviously had no idea what she wanted from him, as he didn’t speak Japanese, or any other language for that matter.
But then, when she said: “Casey-chan no o-hana wa koko desu, yo!” (This is where you nose is, Casey!) and pointed to his nose (or was it her nose? I don’t remember now) and then said the same words in Japanese again, he pointed to his nose straight away with a big smile on his face because now he knew the answer and he was evidently enjoying the game.
And when after that she started using other Japanese words, o-mimi (ears), o-kuchi (mouth), in the fact-finding part for learning new words after the slightly confusing introductory part of the game, he remembered easily which part was what and started correctly identifying parts of his face and body in Japanese.
It was fun to watch and see in practice that learning a language can indeed be fun. When you are a small child, everything is new and trying out new things is always fun, including learning a new language.
As greedy and dishonest peddlers of mostly worthless language courses noticed this interesting detail about how children’s brains work when it comes to learning foreign languages, some are now incorporating the promise “to activate the dormant part of your brain that makes learning a language fun” in their advertisements. Because our brains are “wired to learn language in 10 days”, all we have to do is “activate this wired part of our brain and we can easily learn any language without really trying”, they say.
Many people fall for this lie if they don’t have much experience with learning of foreign languages. They are then eventually forced with this ingenious but extremely dishonest scheme to spend hundreds of dollars for a mediocre language course on CDs that will be periodically sent to them, because they were told that they were spending 10 dollars for a trial CD and that they were free to cancel the miraculous language course at any point by returning the CD. But as evidenced by the more than hundred complaints in Ripoffreport.com linked in a post called If You Believe That You Can Learn Language in 10 Days You Deserve to Be Ripped Off that I wrote three years ago, it’s next to impossible to cancel your order. Incidentally, since that post had almost 20,000 views so far, hopefully I saved a few people some money that could be used for a language learning method that really works.
Our brains are wired for all kinds of things, but there is no magic cluster of neurons in our brain that makes it possible to learn Chinese or any other language in 10 days without really trying once we activate this dormant bunch of talented brain cells that specialize in learning foreign languages in our magnificent brain, after we have accidentally neutralized its natural ability to easily soak up a foreign language by becoming slothful, plodding adults. Just as it is not possible to become a virgin a second time around, we can’t become innocent children again who can soak up a new language like a sponge soaks up water. When grownups pretend to be innocent children, they generally look pretty stupid because they are obviously faking it.
It is possible to make language learning fun even for adults, but because the brains of grown up people are fully formed, which includes a fully formed part of their brain where their native language resides, adults generally need to use different methods than small children.
Some people, including adults, find it easier to learn languages, just like some people find it easier to draw and paint, or play a musical instrument, or sing, or climb mountains, while some are pretty poor at either of these activities no matter how long they’ve been trying to learn them.
This doesn’t really have anything to do with intelligence per se. Einstein was a pretty smart guy, but he never learned how to speak proper English and his accent was atrocious even though he spent many years in this country. It’s possible that on his deathbed, Einstein came up with an idea that would be even more revolutionary than the theory of relativity and that was what he was trying to communicate to a nurse at a hospital in Princeton, New Jersey, as he lay there dying in 1955. But because he was saying his last words in German and the nurse spoke only English, we’ll never know what those last words were.
On the other hand, some people who are not nearly as smart as Einstein was, perhaps not very smart at all, can learn a new language quite easily and can do that very well in only a short period of time. I have met quite a few people like that, and as far as I could tell, they were no Einsteins.
Once we are not children anymore, the ability to absorb a new language as if through osmosis is gone for good and there is nothing we can do about it. The later in life we start learning a new language, the harder it generally turns out to be to become fluent in it. The cut off age for children who can usually completely lose the accent of their original language after they have moved to a different country is generally around 13 or 14, which is to say around the time when puberty hits us really hard and physical and hormonal changes transforms what used to be a child into what will soon be an adult. Henry Kissinger came to United States at the age of 16 – and that’s why his accent is so heavy even though he spent about seven decades in the United States. I saw and heard him accepting some kind of prize on German TV in German just this week, and his German sounded better than his English, I thought.
I started learning Japanese a very long time ago in Prague when I was 23 years old. I remember that every time when my class was finished, there were two kids waiting there for Haneda-san’s next lesson, a boy and a girl, both about 13 years old. I envied them because I understood that they had a big advantage over me when it came to learning a complicated foreign language – they were much younger than I was, about half my age.
But just because you start learning a language at a young age does not mean that your advantage will last forever. It all depends on what you do with the new language. When I lived in San Francisco, I used to carry my son Andy in a child carrier on my back a few blocks from Anza Street to California Street where Andy’s babysitter lived, a Chinese lady by the name of Mrs. Touk.
The moment I left the apartment on California street, Andy was left alone in a world where everybody spoke only Chinese. I don’t know whether the Chinese people, both the grownups and kids at that apartment played language games in Chinese with Andy, but to my surprise, Andy, who was about two years old, understood what Mrs. Took was telling him in Chinese as I wrote in another post, because when she told him something in a language that I could not understand, he would obediently do what she told him to do. He also called his stuffed penguin toy without which he refused to go to sleep Wawa, which I understand mean “a doll” in Chinese, not penguin. I spent many evenings frantically looking for Wawa in nooks and crannies and under the bed in Andy’s room for several years. Even when we moved away from San Francisco and Andy was no longer exposed to Chinese, the name of his penguin was still Wawa.
Unfortunately, neither Casey nor Andy speak Japanese or Chinese at this point as adults, other than perhaps two dozen Japanese words having to do mostly with Japanese food. What makes little children want to learn foreign languages is that fact that they perceive the actual learning process as a game rather than an onerous task, a game that can be a lot of fun.
The same principle can also be used by adults who can’t really activate cells specially designed for learning of languages that may have been dormant in their brain for a few decades – because it’s not possible. As long as people can figure out how to make the language learning activity interesting and fun, they will be learning constantly and quickly. They will never learn much if they find the activity to be too complicated, difficult and boring.
Some weird people for some reason find this activity perpetually interesting at any age.
Fortunately for me, I am such a person too. It’s not that I enjoy looking up words that I don’t understand. I don’t like having to work for it. But I do enjoy knowing what these words mean once I find out the truth that was hidden to my eyes, ears and brain when the meaning of words was camouflaged in a foreign language, a foreign language that is no longer so foreign to me.
And that is what makes me want to keep learning foreign languages, especially since given that I am a translator, people actually pay me for doing it.