On Learning a Language, Neurology, and Self-Defeatism

Every so often, a new article comes out reporting on a new study in which linguists and neurologists have determined that age influences a person’s ability to learn a new language. The research increasingly shows that the earlier you learn a language, the better it is for your command of that language, from the standpoint of both grammar and pronunciation. Furthermore, studies also show that, independent of the linguistic outcome, growing up bilingual is beneficial for cognitive and social development, leading parents everywhere to explore their options for immersive language learning from a young age.

So far, so good, right? Science marches on, and we gain an increasingly granular understanding of the ways that behavior, cognition and neurology interact. The only problem is that, despite the fact that the reporting on these studies is laudably nuanced, with multiple caveats about the bigger picture of learning languages, people tend to interpret these studies by concluding, ‘so if you didn’t start a language at a young age, do not even try, you are wasting your time.’ This really bums us out at Glyph, because people rule themselves out of something that could be a really fulfilling part of their lives! Communicating across a language barrier isn’t all about fluency. Language is really about exchanging ideas and experiencing another worldview that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience.

In the BBC article cited above, Dr. Trenkic from University of York points out that “you can be an excellent communicator, even if you don’t sound like a native speaker or don’t get all your sentences grammatically correct.” We totally agree. While we obviously think there is a time and place for rigorous, meticulous translations by native speakers, at the same time, we feel like many people are missing out on the joys of studying and employing a language because of a misunderstanding about how and why we even study languages. So don’t let those studies about the changing brain or the benefits of starting early stop you!

Ten years ago I attended a wedding at a farm in Sweden between a Swedish friend and an Englishman. The night before the wedding, among an intimate group of family and close friends in the garden of the farmhouse, the groom stood up and gave a heartfelt speech in Swedish, a language that he had only recently begun studying, and one with some phonemes and spelling conventions that can be difficult. Everything was going, well, if not great, then let’s say pretty good, until he described the moment… that he looked… into his fiancée’s ears… and knew that she was the one. The mother of the bride burst out laughing, and the spell was somewhat broken.

It is an easy mistake to make. The Swedish word for ears is öron (IPA: œːron) and the word for eyes is ögon (IPA: øːgon). Despite the laughter, however, it didn’t compromise the groom’s standing with anyone there. Instead, he came away from his speech having left both the Swedes and the assembled Brits with a sense of his commitment and courage (and also provided me with the only memorable wedding speech I have ever experienced).

Ultimately what is lost in between the caveats at the bottom of these articles and the popular understanding of language learning is the purpose of studying a new language at all. It is easy to fall into the trap of looking at a foreign language as a trick or skill you master in isolation, like a totally sweet kickflip or making your food catch on fire just the right amount, but language is ultimately for communicating with people, and fortunately, human language is very error-tolerant. In most places, the sheer act of trying and failing to speak the local language is enough to foster goodwill and a sense of hospitality, just as it did with our English friend and his Swedish wife. People often get hung up on fluency when they discuss language, as though that is the only milestone in the journey worth mentioning – but not studying a language because you’ll never be fluent is like not playing a sport because you’ll never go pro. It kind of misses the point.

In short, while we think that studies like these and the articles that report on them are valuable, we also cringe a little bit every time we see them. We know lots of people are going to rule themselves out of learning a new language when they see things like this, when in reality, the desire to learn a language and talk to someone with whom you normally couldn’t should be all the justification you need. So go out there, mess up your vous and tu, get wrong your subject-verb-object order, good luck with that voiced pharyngeal fricative, and don’t worry about being fluent, that’s for kids anyway. And remember that when you do need fluent speakers for that next big initiative, we got your back.

As for language learning tools, there are more options than ever before, including the obvious ones like Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, but also Memrise, Pimsleur, FluentU, and others. There are lots of podcasts available, including the FluentU’s Innovative Language series which offer podcasts in several languages, and NPR’s RadioAmbulante podcast series in Spanish has been a big hit around the office. Keep in mind that it matters less which tool you use, and more that you use it consistently, but most of all, have fun!