Tis the season for resolutions, and Gary Marcus tells the New Yorker it’s never too late to learn:
…For me, much of the past year revolved around discussions prompted by a book of mine that was published in January, called “Guitar Zero,” about the science of learning and my own adventures in learning guitar at the age of forty. The basic premise was that the scientific evidence for a widespread view called the “critical-period effect” was far weaker than widely supposed.
The critical-period effect is the idea that you can’t do certain things—like learn a language, or learn an instrument—unless you start early in life. It’s a discouraging thought for anyone past adolescence. But, recently, the evidence for this idea had started to unwind…
Consider, for example, amblyopia, another long-standing example in the literature on critical periods. Amblyopia is a visual disorder in which the two eyes don’t properly align; sometimes it’s called “lazy eye.” The standard medical advice is to treat your child early, by getting them to wear an eye patch over the good eye (in order to strengthen the weak one). If you don’t treat the problem early, you can just forget about ever fixing it. Just after my book went to press, however, Dennis Levi, the dean of the School of Optometry at Berkeley, conducted a brilliantly simple study that was easy to conduct, yet would have seemed like a waste of time to anybody steeped in critical-period dogma. Levi and his collaborator stuck eye patches on the good eye of adult amblyopics, aged fifteen to sixty-one, whom everyone else had written off on the presumption that they could not learn anything new. He then set his subjects down at a video game—a first person shooter called Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, to be exact—and told them to have fun. Levi found that his subjects got better at virtually every aspect of visual perception he could measure. It wasn’t that it was too late for adults to overcome amblyopia, it was that the myth of critical periods had kept people from trying…
Apart from riffing on the political significance of late-in-life learning and first-person shooters, what’s on the agenda for the evening?
So it’s not too late for me to learn ancient Sanskrit?
Just Some Fuckhead
i’m too lazy to do anything about my lazy eye
Mmm… fried rice and egg rolls
Another Halocene Human
It’s not that you can’t learn a language, it’s that your brain will early in life cut down the number of phonemes that you can distinguish and express. You might be able to eradicate an accent with the proper training (and I don’t mean a Berlitz class). It’s not clear how well you can overcome a deficit in phoneme distinction.
Of course, I have an auditory processing defect so it’s always going to be difficult for me, but I have a much easier time with Italian, which I learned much later, than German, which contains phonemes that I can’t distinguish. Or for example I am quite fluent in Japanese, which has a severely limited phoneme set, but am a hot mess when I attempt to speak French.
I can’t even properly speak in an urban Boston accent even though I grew up around it. I learned to fake it well enough to communicate with customers on a job, but it’s off.
Agree with the overall premise of the book–the dogma that adults don’t regrow neural tissue has been overturned in recent years–including spinal cord injury patients who regained function below the point of injury.
What goes along with that though is that there are ways to support ongoing brain vitality and learning and there are ways to (unfortunately) stop learning and gradually lose brain function. Geriatrics has gotten very interested in this but I think middle age needs more attention because that is often when people get in a rut.
Another Halocene Human
@redshirt: Sanskrit is essentially a written language only with heavy English cognates so I think that would be very achievable for you.
Just what makes that little old ant
Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant
Anyone knows an ant, can’t
Move a rubber tree plant
But he’s got high hopes
He’s got high hopes
He’s got high apple pie
In the sky hopes.
So any time your feelin’ low, stead of lettin’ go
Just remember that ant
Oops there goes another rubber tree plant
Oops there goes another rubber tree plant.
Read more: http://artists.letssingit.com/connie-francis-lyrics-high-hopes-8v4v9gg#ixzz2HEvkmq3C
LetsSingIt – Your favorite Music Community
I bet they walked out of that study and right into a gun store, after playing so much of a violent video game.
Or so all those concerned moms tell me.
When they criminalize Amblyopia, only criminals will have Amblyopia.
For real: I’ve been reading on rehabilitation theories that stress the learning of new skills/ideas/concepts as treatment for addiction, PTSD, depression, etc. Basically the idea is you challenge the brain in new and innovative ways, and this helps speed on recovery from the issue at hand.
For example – something as basic as trying to learn how to juggle as a treatment for depression.
Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault? That game is terrible, but I guess sacrifices are necessary in the name of science.
Thinking about practicing a little concealed carry django.
I’ve taught quite a number of guitar students and there is one major reason for younger is better.
Once they discover girls (or boys) the amount of time available for practice goes out the window.
c u n d gulag
Ok, so maybe you can teach old dog’s, and now most older humans, new tricks – but not Conservatives!
When you’re not open to new data, how, and what, can you possibly learn?
@jeffreyw: Is that saffron rice? Looks yummy.
Dude, I am so gonna find out where you live…
and I’m coming over.
Read something similar about mindfullness helping multitasking at all ages, even when practiced in short doses. not just anecdotally, they’d run some tests too.
I’m sending off thank you notes. Of the 25 Republican members of the House that I harassed about lower taxes for the middle class, 14 of them voted for the fiscal cliff thingy. So I’m sending those folks a little note.
What’s the best way to learn Spanish, other than moving to a Spanish speaking country, cuz apparently I’m not too old like I’ve been told, and I want to. I really don’t want to go and sit in a classroom and do homework.
Rand Paul’s drunk and disorderly 19-year-old son has been arrested at the Charlotte, NC airport.
Spawn of Aqua Buddha, who is shocked?
@the Conster: Anecdotally, the Rosetta Stone program does seem very effective. If you can afford it.
@Another Halocene Human: The old monitor theory!
As someone who has been recently diagnosed with Amblyopia this is good news (for me at least). It was the purchase of some very expensive astronomical binoculars, through which I couldn’t pull the images together. Just put them back in their case and stuck it out with my telescope. I live just a few blocks from a very good eye institute. Guess I know my itinerary for the next forever. It would be nice to get back behind the binocs.
@Southern Beale: Paul Broun’s son has gotten popped for DUI and reefer here.
@the Conster: Immersion.
This post made my day (I’m old)!
I think it’s like working out- it may take a bit longer to get the muscles in shape than it did when younger, but they can get there if you’re willing to work at it.
Zoran Josipovic, a research scientist and adjunct professor at New York University, says he has been peering into the brains of monks while they meditate in an attempt to understand how their brains reorganise themselves during the exercise.
I’ve heard that too, but ugh, the money.
@Raven: time and money. ugh.
So, here’s a small rehab program I recommend for anyone who wants to change something about their life.
10-30 minutes meditation
10 minutes stretching
5 minutes ball throwing/catching with opposite hand
1-5 crossword puzzles/soduku/jumble/etc
2 minutes walking backwards
20-45 minutes cardio exercise
The key to these actions – or any similar ones you wish to adopt – is challenging the mind/body in different ways. Walking backwards, for example, may sound stupid/pointless. But it’s something you rarely do, and by doing it, you engage parts of your brain not normally engaged and it is this new engagement which is the key to getting over whatever it is you’re trying to get over.
@the Conster: Local college or university adult and continuing ed?
@the Conster: Become a janitor or dishwasher. You’ll pick up Spanish soon enough then!
@redshirt: I’m trying to get over, on the man!
The game he plays he plays for keeps
Hustlin’ times and ghetto streets
Tryin’ ta get over
(That’s what he tryin’ to do, y’all)
Taking all that he can take
Gambling with the odds of fate
Tryin’ ta get over
Tryin’ ta get over
Tryin’ ta get over
Tryin’ ta get over
@Raven: Kill your TV then brother.
The notion that young people learn languages more quickly than adults was debunked long ago. Ask anyone teaching diplomats a new language at Georgetown for some pending assignment. An eager adult will almost generally master a new language more rapidly than a child.
The most important requirements for learning a language as an adult are:
– Truly wanting to learn the language, which is almost always the case with adults (but not kids).
– A complete lack of pride and inhibition about failing, and making a fool of yourself. I think this is what really prevents a lot of adults from learning new languages (or anything else?).
Mastering the accent as an adult is a separate issue, but you can still be fluent in another language with a lousy accent.
I really don’t want to sit in a classroom, be tested and do homework. I just want to hear it spoken while looking at the words being said – I’m a visual learner. I think that’s Rosetta Stone – I’ll have to find someone to share it with me but I’d like to hear from someone who used it and really think they got their money’s worth. I keep ending up in Spanish speaking places, and I’m tired of not being able to converse.
@Mandalay: Debunked by who?
That’s the vocabulary you’d never learn in the classroom, I’m going to guess.
I will travel, then consume food, then sleep.
As someone who had a form of Amblyopia, I can tell you the number of Optometrists west of the Mississippi who would even bother treating kids with an eyepatch was somewhere between 1 and a few. Note I said optometrist and not opthamologist, as I’m pretty sure most MDs consider this treatment with as much respect as they give chiro.
When my mom and I simultneously determined my cousins kid had it at 10, my cousin had to fly to DC to find someone who would evaluate him. They said “yep, he’s got it, good luck with that.” After screaming awhile, they dug out the treatment materials (eye patch, holograms, clear glasses with bifocal line for vertical control) and sent him off. Took 6 months of dragging the kid to cooperate, but now he’s a postdoc in Physics.
Anyway, it’s usually too late after 20 because you’re already dead, on the street or in jail if you’ve got a disability like this. That statistic about LD’s and Jail, never doubted it.
Don’t believe this nonsense, olds. Once you reach 40 you’re done. There’s noting to learn.
Move to south Florida.
Not sure about other parts of the country but here there are also several Spanish TV channels. Watching Spanish soaps every day would be a painless – and potentially enjoyable – way to force Spanish on yourself.
I have not tried it, but Rosetta Stone seems to be the most highly regarded package if you want to fly solo. And there are always adult continuing education classes, and evening classes at community colleges. That approach also has the inbuilt advantage of forcing you into a regular routine.
The thing you cannot teach is being good at stuff and trying hard. I have had guitar students in their 50s and those are the qualities the successful ones had.
Mmmm. Fun with chickpeas.
Back in the 1930s a psychologist taught rats to run mazes. Then he made a mess of their cortex, leaving them incapable of performing tasks they had mastered.
He then retrained them to perform as normal.
(Cannot remember his name. He called it “The Principle of Expo-something. It was a half-century ago when I ran across the paper.)
That research was largely ignored.
For years when someone had a stroke or suffered brain damage we just parked them on the curb.
Then we rediscovered what had been learned decades earlier. With the right sort of training many/most functions can be recovered.
@the Conster: Hanging around with people who speak your target language is the best. Watching tv & video set on the Spanish language setting after you have mastered the basics can be good but social contact with actual humans speaking the language is best.
I wonder if a complete lack of hesitation to mimic might also be an aide in acquiring the accent part?
A small fear of appearing to mock others might slow someone from “using an accent”.
@JustAnotherBob: I did some tiny second language acquisition studies and one found that just the right amount of booze could lower inhibitions so that the learner put down the defenses. A bit more and babbling incoherence resulted. Krashen also talks about “fossilization”in pronunciation by adults. Take Kissigner, he KNOWS English but he’ll never lose the accent.
@the Conster: Language exchange. Every place I’ve ever lived – including backwater Pennsylvania had immigrant communities. They constantly have new immigrants that come here and want to learn english, but face the same problem of cost for classes. So, you pair up with someone who needs to learn english – and you teach them and they teach you. Costs effectively nothing. Meet over lunch, play Monopoly, go jogging – whatever interests you have in common.
My university has a standing language exchange meeting every week where people can come and meet and pair up. Often times they aren’t even looking to learn english – our Italian students will pair up with a Chinese student to learn Mandarin, and the Chinese student learns Italian. Our HOA also has an exchange service, and Craigslist local pages usually have language exchange postings as well.
If you’re single, it’s a pretty good way to meet people, too.
@PurpleGirl: No, just a sprinkle of turmric in the rice cooker. Pretty, not much flavor.
@Raven: I would say that Kissinger has chosen to not loose the accent.
It’s an affectation.
@JustAnotherBob: No it isn’t. Neither is Brzezinski or Joseph Conrad for that matter.
Hosting an exchange student is also a fantastic way to do this as they live in your house for a semester to a year. Basically, it’s just the cost of feeding them at most. But you build really good relationships this way as well. If you ever want to travel, I guarantee you’ll get offers to go and visit and stay with them. My grandmother did this for years and routinely traveled around the world staying with people she knew. Aside from hosting students, she’d bring all of the foreign students home for Thanksgiving and Christmas as they often had nowhere else to go. She’d still be in touch with them decades later after they had kids – she was treated as part of their family. By the time her Alzheimers kicked in and she couldn’t learn any more, she could navigate well enough as a tourist in probably 20 languages – covering probably 80% of the planet.
Here is an article from the Center for Applied Linguistics…
And here is an article from the Goethe Institute:
If “better” means faster, then young children don’t do so well compared to adolescents or even young adults, especially at the beginning of the course when, according to Grotjahn, the latter two groups make better progress. With regard to learning vocabulary and reading comprehension, adolescents and even older adults still have a distinct long-term advantage. “In these areas, adult students have access to a broader spectrum of conceptual knowledge in their various native languages, along with a broader spectrum of overall knowledge.”
There’s also that terrible stage you reach in a language when you know enough of it to really hear how badly like a dull toddler you sound. Learn to live with it, you’ll improve and eventually sound like a dim middle schooler but so long as communication is established, things can generally be figured out, sometimes with a little arm-waving and interpretive charades.
@Mandalay: “A complete lack of pride and inhibition about failing, and making a fool of yourself.”
this is key. it held me back in language learning in school, though I have a good ear, and I only began learning to play music around age 38 or 39 when it dawned on me that it was OK to be shitty at it.
@JustAnotherBob: that’s a good point too. you feel like you are mocking an unfamiliar accent when you mimic it, but if you don’t you end up converting it into your own familiar phonemes and missing the point, or the tone, etc.
I suppose I missed “faster”.
“People who learn a second language differ from children learning their first language in a number of ways. Perhaps the most striking of these is that very few adult second-language learners reach the same competence as native speakers of that language. Children learning a second language are more likely to achieve native-like fluency than adults, but in general it is very rare for someone speaking a second language to pass completely for a native speaker. When a learner’s speech plateaus in this way it is known as fossilization.
In addition, some errors that second-language learners make in their speech originate in their first language. For example, Spanish speakers learning English may say “Is raining” rather than “It is raining”, leaving out the subject of the sentence. French speakers learning English, however, do not usually make the same mistake. This is because sentence subjects can be left out in Spanish, but not in French. This influence of the first language on the second is known as language transfer.”
Listen to Spanish radio stations. Get a good grammar book. Ask people how to say something.
@the Conster: I was pointed to the Michel Thomas method (here or somewhere else — I forget). It seems to be the opposite of immersion. Based on the free sample lesson for French that I downloaded, it seems to be almost a Socratic dialogue with students that starts in pure English, then introduces words that have some relationship to English, but are pronounced differently. You are prodded to think and problem solve and look for patterns as more novel vocabulary and simple grammar is introduced to you.
I don’t know how well this would work in the long run, but if you’re a problem solver, you might like this. The Spanish section of his site includes a sample download.
That is true, but errors can also originate in the second language. I was staying in the same hotel as a fellow traveller many years ago. I was certain that he was English until he befuddled me by saying “asshole” rather than the English “arsehole”, so I asked him where he was from.
It turned out that he was from the Netherlands, had learned English since he was a small child, and had a perfect English accent. But he had picked up “asshole” from watching American TV at home.
True language fluency is a tricky thing.
I believe in adult neural plasticity. It may be a bit slower than in the developing cortex, but the brain is surprisingly adept at remapping neural connections as needed (including adapting around damaged ones). To a certain degree, obviously. Some damage may be too extreme to be overcome.
Fire together, wire together, as they say in the Hebbian parlance.
I’m biased though…I got my PhD studying neuroscience at Cal and a diagnosis of MS at around the same time. I’ve seen the many scattered lesions in my white matter on MRI films, and I’m doing all I can to defy them from dragging me down. In addition to science, I’ve taken up learning Russian, restarting art and creative writing, not to mention trying my best to stay physically able. Use it or lose it is too simple an adage, but not the worst place to start.
@Mandalay: and fluid
Keep it up and I bet it helps.
I know you are snarking here but I learned to tig weld at 55. This is a process that takes coordination with both hands, eyes and use of the foot at the same time. While you are getting all that down you have to understand the concepts of what you are trying to accomplish and how that interacts with the physical movements required.
And I am trying to learn spanish as I may move to Costa Rica and that seems to be a reasonable thing to do.
Indeed. Do you have any thoughts on this intriguing case?…
It’s as though his brain cleverly “rewired” itself so that he could still speak Welsh after his ability to speak English was temporarily lost.
… it dawned on me that it was OK to be shitty at it.
That’s the thing some of us didn’t even have as kids, the ability to see that learning something new can take time and being shitty at it for a while. Once you discover that almost everyone is till they practice and get better, learning new things is a lot easier.
That’s simply too potent a term to be confined to language acquisition. It deserves much wider application.
For instance, “fossilization”: the demographics of Republican Party membership. Or “fossilization”: the process of conservative cognitive and emotional development. It’s so less pretentious and easier-to-understand than “epistemic closure.”
It is . . . too late for me.
@imbrium: You know more than I, but please do consider some of the examples I raised. Any use of your non-dominant hand, for example. In terms of brain plasticity, forcing yourself to use your weak hand for common tasks is an easy and free way to challenge your brain to reshape. In the specific case of disease, I posit this can help the brain work around affected areas more easily. Or at least with better odds.
@Linda Featheringill: Not only is that good manners, it’s also good politics. Thank you for the calls and the follow-up notes.
Years ago I had to learn to use either hand in certain processes at work. It took a while to get there but it was a valuable thing to know and has served me well in a number of instances. I broke my dominate thumb once and was in a cast for 6 weeks with another 6 weeks of PT to get the muscles working again. I figured that I had trained my off hand so, I should be able to write with it. As long as no one, including myself, needed to read what I wrote, it was easy peasy.
My mother had lazy eye, and upon the advice of an old lady, my grannie had her ears pierced as a cure. My child had the same thing, and lacking any evidence that it would harm miss bird, I did the same thing. The lazy eye straightened up. Causal? Correlational? Who knows? But it worked.
My iPod touch has Shapewriter, an extraordinary program that lets you “type” by tracing the words. It has the QWERTY keyboard but also an optimized one. I made myself choose the optimized one because I knew it would be slow at first… and then faster than QWERTY, and that turned out to be the case.
In my experience as a peer counselor, it’s a lot of negative emotions which stop people from changing and growing.
Resentment that they have to, depression using up their “life force” energy, and most of all a miserly clinging to what they have, even if they don’t like it! Trust is probably the most crucial… without the ability to “live with the empty hand” in the expectation that it will be filled, people keep a death grip on the most spiky and uncomfortable of situations.
@the Conster: try one of those “adult continuing education ” courses in “conversational Spanish.”. Those are usually taught by native speakers and will give you the basics.
The Living Language courses, basic and advanced, claim to be each equal to 4 years of college level Spanish. The only college level anything I took was Business Law, in English, so I can’t address the accuracy of Living Language’s claims. I do think the material is presented somewhat haphazardly. A book that, to my mind, has a more logical layout is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Learning Spanish, Fifth Edition, by Gail Stein. I plan to work my way through it and then go back to Living Language. Fortunately, I have plenty of Mexican neighbors who are patient with gringas.
I have not tried the service and don’t know anyone who has, but fredoneverything.net offers total immersion lessons from Mrs. Fred, who’s Mexican. I believe she charges $20/hour or thereabouts; the phone call itself is on her. I can get all the immersion I can handle from the neighbors, for free, but if you have no native speakers nearby you might try Violeta’s approach, if you can afford it.
The devil you know.
My mother was left handed. She was taught to write and use forks etc with her right when she was a child. Her writing was clear.
@Ruckus: Writing is the hardest act of all from the weak hand, I’ve found. But even things like brushing teeth or eating soup can be surprisingly difficult, at first. Practice works, though, and anyone can achieve basic weak-handed competence in a broad array of behaviors if effort is applied.
Effort is hard, though. So…
Downton Abbey Season 3 Episode 1. T minus 25 and counting.
I could actually form most of the letters but I needed the practice to make it usable, you know writing, just like with everything else in life. We all need practice at everything. Even sex takes practice to get better at. Of course sex is always good, practice just makes it better. So keep practicing!
Get a basic grammar book, learn to conjugate the verbs, study a basic word list and then watch Telemundo or Univision as much and as often as you can. Do this for six months and then go talk to one of the millions and millions of Spanish speakers in the United States. Worked for me.
And I think with language when linguists talk about fossilization and the loss of the ability to ever learn a language as a true native speaker, regular folks take that to me you can’t learn a language at all. Of course you can. Yes, you’ll have an accent. So did Henry Kissenger when he was a very important man in the Whitehouse.
( I see Raven beat me to this reference)
You can learn all this stuff, you just won’t be as good as if you learned as a kid. I learned to surf when I was 36. Sure, I suck in relative terms to the top people in the sport who started at 3 and 4 years of age. But I still get stoked out of my mind on a pitching overhead wave that is reeling out forever in front of me.
Yeah when I was in school the left handed kids were supposed to be forced to learn with their right hands, can’t have any deviation you know. Most of the kids figured that learning with their dominate hand was easier so they just silently told the school to screw off and did what worked best. Can’t imagine how that made them feel about school and adults.
Do you live in the US? If so, Hulu Plus costs 8 bucks a month and has a wide Latino selection. A lot of these shows are closed captioned which makes it much easier to follow when getting accustomed to rapid conversational speech.
@Allen: You are me, except my discovery tool was a digital SLR with a poorly-located joystick. I’ve always been a left-eye shooter since my first 35mm film camera way back in the 1970s, but it never really occurred to me to wonder why. A few years ago I bought a Canon EOS 7d, which has a joystick for selecting focus points (among other uses, but that’s primarily what it’s for when the camera is at your eye). I suppose it works great if you have your right eye at the viewfinder, but my nose is in the way because I use my left eye. When I tried to switch eyes I soon realized that I can’t see through the viewfinder with my right eye. A bit of research and a consultation with my optometrist soon confirmed that I have amblyopia and have since early childhood. Explains why I could never hit a baseball as a kid (and several other shortcomings too).
@JustAnotherBob: I know someone who never heard a word of English until he was 8, and as a teenager, you’d never know he wasn’t born in South Philly.
The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge
I don’t know if you’ll see this at this late date, but This is a site that has a number of the Foreign Service Institute language courses, including many of the tapes. The FSI is still trying to get people to pay for these things, but having been produced by the US government, they are in the public domain.* These courses are still quite well thought of, and the price is right!
(*) You will notice some puzzling lacunae—Russian in particular. Some a$$holes who worked on the original courses changed a few words and copyrighted the “new” edition and are selling them. People who make the original public-domain versions freely available have bee threatened with lawsuits, so they’re afraid to try it. Hopefully, that would never stand up in court, but who needs the aggravation?
@Spike: I had basically the same experience, except with hearing. I finally took a proper hearing test at age 17 and failed spectacularly, after having passed every school sponsored hearing test to date. I was 90% deaf in my left ear and didn’t even know it till age 17. It was strange.
The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge
On the subject of amblyopia…I guess both my eyes are “lazy”, because either one will wander off if I nail the other one in the mirror. In any case, I only look through one eye at a time, but I’ve always switched back and forth. I can see in 3-D with help, like 3-D glasses or a Viewmaster (dating myself, I guess), but I can’t bring two pictures together like in an old-fashioned map viewer—or in real life.
An optometrist told me this was very common when you’re as farsighted as I am—over 4 powers in both eyes. My question is: I’ve seen people claim that you could exercise your tracking muscles by focusing on your finger and then bringing it right in to the bridge of your nose repeatedly, and eventually your eyes would be able to track together. Anybody know anything about this? It’s very tiresome if it’s not going to do any good.
@jeffreyw: unfair. I’d need everything to be salt-free or seasoned with just a touch of Braggs
@Ruckus: or maybe even shitty forever but god damn me if that is going to prevent me from playing!
Well yes we all do have limits at different things. Had an interesting discussion at a party once concerning innate capabilities. Gentleman did not believe that we had limitations, that we can achieve anything we put our minds to. Now sure I can type, as you can see, but I am dyslexic and spend about 30-40% of the time correcting switched letters. So my speed is not great considering how many years I have been practicing. But having a spell checker has improved my typing and spelling dramatically. Now I can actually see my errors as I go and can correct them. So I am still learning, but 60 or 100 words a minute error free? NFW. I have limitations, I can learn to overcome or work around them, but being great, even at something we all do everyday? That isn’t happening. Better yes, great no. And most everyone has some sort of limitations at some things. Some of us have major limitations at lots of things.