Anyone learn a second language as an adult?

Larry F

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For my PhD, I had to pass a written translation in French and Italian. I had had 5 years of French and took a French class in college as a senior. I passed the French exam right off the bat.

Because so much music analysis and theory (not much related to what we call theory on the forum) was in German, I should have learned it, but went with Italian, a kin of French. I learned it on my own, written only. Following the advice of a friend in anthropology (they had three language exams), I bought a medium hefty Cassell's Italian dictionary and made small tabs for each letter of the alphabet. That made it much easier to navigate using the tabs. Believe me, that was extremely useful, although may be antiquated by now.

At one point in my graduate studies, I answered an ad for a roommate. The other two new roomies were from Taiwan, a mother and her daughter, also a college student. We got along really well, and I tried to interact in Mandarin only. The mother was enthused about this, and said that as a child, she was used for demonstrations of the spoken language, which used tones (a kind of pitch inflection of vowels). Learning to speak with a tonal language like Mandarin was difficult if you weren't used to the technique. Anyway, the mother was a great teacher of tones.

We tried to speak only in Mandarin in the apartment. I got good enough to take basic phone messages. After a while, I noticed that the speaking voice was a little higher in pitch. Once I began answering the phone using a higher-sounding voice, bingo. One time I told the caller that I wasn't Chinese and had trouble with comprehension, especially when spoken quickly. Since my tones and overall pitch had improved in our apartment life, I started sounding more like a Taiwanese guy. Anyway, this called, and at one point I said (in Mandarin) I couldn't everything he was saying. This confused him, so I just took his phone number. Later, one of the roommates told me that the caller had been confused by my telling him I didn't understand. He thought that a Chinese guy was putting him on. Another time, the wife of the head of Wang computers called. I tried to say something in reply, but struggled to do so. Anyway, she just hung up. I told my roommates later about what I had said. It translated as, "she's not tall. She doesn't have any feet."

Later, I was visiting the campus for a job interview. The head of the area and I attended a student recital. What I didn't know at the time, was that the area head was known for years as being able to speak some large number of languages. So, sitting there before the recital began, he decided to speak in Mandarin, regarding the title of a piece or something. I really did not understand a word he was saying. So, I told him in Mandarin that I did not understand what I was saying. But it went completely over his head, and he confessed, "I don't speak Chinese. I just liked to make the sounds." This was an emperor's new clothes situation. Naturally, one wonders about all of the other languages that he pretended to speak. It was kind of sad, as part of his reputation a man of the world was based on faking the sounds of languages he purported to speak. Needless to say, I didn't tell too many people my story, out of respect or pity.
 

JL_LI

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I studied math and logic. Is mathematics a language in the same way Italian is? I have my doubts. At least, I feel I am using different parts of my brain speaking a natural language versus thinking about mathematics. I don't know for sure, but I bet this has been studied with brain scans, etc...
Curious. I’m not a neuroanatomist. You’re probably right but I recall the same struggle learning math and language with better results learning math. The difference is that o learned what I used and learning became progressively easier the more I learned.
 

BatUtilityBelt

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I have to repeat my comment about mathematics to programming languages. I've learned dozens of programming languages but I think, like mathematics, they use different parts of your brain than natural languages. The idea that they, too, have a syntax is just a shallow analogy.

I'd be interested if someone has some scientific evidence to the contrary.
I don't think a forum discussion quite warrants requiring scientific evidence. That aside, while I was joking, I think there is great validity to calling programming languages actual languages. It's far beyond syntax. Spoken languages take on environmental and colloquial influences, as do programming languages. If the syntax was the only difference, then Java would be C, and they're really not even close. And I would assert that moving from a procedural language to an object oriented one was at least as hard as learning a Germanic language after speaking a romance language. But I'll stop, as the original post was intended to be about spoken languages.
 

loopfinding

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After traveling to Japan a number of times for work, I thought I'd try to learn to speak some of the language.

I memorized maybe ten sentences which I can recite today.

I got a phone app to learn the Katakana/Hirugana phonetic alphabets. After about 3 weeks I was doing pretty well. Drop it for two weeks and come back, not so well. I think the biggest predictor of success is the ability/opportunity to use it on a daily basis.

One of the things that helped me was that I like cooking Japanese food, so deciphering the kana/furigana on packages at supermarkets made it go quick/keep it in my memory. OTOH I used to know probably around 400 kanji but now I only know a fraction of them - either really basic or something I eat regularly, haha.
 

drf64

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I took a medical Spanish course when I was at Ben Taub Hospital in Houston in 1995. Feeling confident, I evaluated a toddler that a nervous Latin couple had brought in with with runny nose and low grade fever. She was fine. It was a cold. I told then in Spanish that she was going to be fine. it was just a virus. At which point the mother burst into tears and the father began speaking rapidly and gesticulating wildly. I had totally lost control of that one so I had to wait 30 minutes for Spanish interpreter to arrive (no phone interpreters in those days). He came out and asked me what I had told them. I repeated to him in Spanish everything I told the family. He nodded and said "you said it correctly, but the problem was they lost a little boy last year to myocarditis (heart muscle damage) and they were told then that it was caused by a virus."

I gave up after that. I just couldn't afford to practice Spanish when there were real lives at stake.
 

teletimetx

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I studied math and logic. Is mathematics a language in the same way Italian is? I have my doubts. At least, I feel I am using different parts of my brain speaking a natural language versus thinking about mathematics. I don't know for sure, but I bet this has been studied with brain scans, etc...
Curious. I’m not a neuroanatomist. You’re probably right but I recall the same struggle learning math and language with better results learning math. The difference is that o learned what I used and learning became progressively easier the more I learned.

I'll add what I can to this conversation. At the moment, I'm reading "How Language Began" by Daniel L. Everett.

There is some measure of controversy as to the how & when language as humans know it arrived as a general communication device and as to which species may have been the first. For some time, general thinking was that Homo Sapiens was the first, as it might have been part and parcel of the increased intellect.

Everett conjectures, however that it was Homo Erectus, the version that first walked on just two feet.

There is a long early chapter on the methodology employed to arrive at this conclusion. In this chapter it is related that one of the principal constituents of language is the ability of two individuals to hold a conversation in their common language. This standard is widely accepted.

Do people hold conversations, in the ordinary sense of speaking to one another, in a mostly casual linear fashion in C++? My impression is that, no, people do not casually converse in C++ and therefore, it cannot be considered as the same thing as a human language.

On the neural pathway front, I have read that the pathways used for singing, for example, are different than the pathway used for speaking. This difference is utilized in musical therapy for stroke victims.

I have had some experience with neural feedback treatments. In my conversations with professionals in this field, they have not yet developed reliable, usable data for brain activity during musical performance. However, there are studies comparing brain activity during ordinary speech versus singing, again a potential tool for music therapy. There's a whole lot of other things involved with music therapy; not going there in this essay...

Another criteria used in evaluation of what constitutes a language is a concept called "underdeterminancy". This concept relates to the ability of a participant in a conversation to understand those elements of the conversation that is left unsaid. This would include facial expressions, implications by word choice, and other elements that provide commonly understood information, without actually speaking the words that would provide the equivalent.

In any event, the lack of:
a) conversational utility in math or programming languages and
b) the absence of any underdeterminancy elements
leads me to think that no, neither programming languages nor math in any sense of the word arise to the level of communication that we associate with actual languages.

I recognize that there are many, many extinct languages that are no longer conversational. That's not a useful argument for anyone, IMO.

Sad, however, to think that we're losing so many languages without knowing what were losing. Story for another day.
 

Jim_in_PA

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Most adults have some level of difficulty learning another language post-puberty. It has something to do with the old neural networks locking into place. For that reason, the education system really has to change the way they approach language arts from HS and MS down to elementary. That's when kids learn alternatives the best. About 10% of adults, however, do learn languages "relatively easily". Professor Dr. SWMBO is one of them. She was functionally fluent in French as some of her study populations years ago were in French speaking countries in Western Africa. She could adapt to some Spanish, too. When we adopted our daughters from Russia about 16 years ago, she came up to speed in enough of that language to not only speak in sentences, but also without an "American" accent. Me...it's harder. I took Spanish in HS and at the university I attended, but it didn't stick much. What I can do, however, is easily do basic phrases and responses to be polite when traveling. I did a lot of that for a few years prior to retirement when I was doing new employee training globally.

I think that any adult wanting to learn one or more additional languages and has the opportunity to actually be in an immersive situation will be well served to taking advantage of that! This is consistent with a number of folks who have already commented.
 

boxocrap

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Despite my parents' and every school I attended's attempts to teach me French from the age of four, I know about ten words of it.

The past couple of years I've managed to pick up Spanish pretty well though. I decided to give it a go and bought a few exercise books and started watching movies and TV in Spanish with Spanish subtitles I could read while listening. Working with Spaniards helped too; instant correction teaches quickly. I can just about hold a conversation about most everyday stuff, but don't expect me to write you an essay on something.
still workin on the first language
 

jkingma

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My biggest regret is that I quit taking French in school as soon as it wasn't a mandatory course. And now that 2/3 of my kids live in Quebec I'm going to try and re-learn some so that at least I can ask directions and order a meal. ;)
 

Sea Devil

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I speak fairly fluent French, which I learned before adulthood. I find that other Latinate languages are fairly easy to get a rudimentary grasp of with ease. I speak abominable Spanish and sort of OK Italian, and somehow I can translate written Portuguese, but can't say any of it aloud or understand anything spoken. The spelling is a complete mystery to me.

Neuroplasticity tends to decline with age, but I think the neural pathways and study habits forged by learning one or more foreign languages early in life can make it easier to pick up new languages and similar systems later in life. If you've only ever known one language, learning another as an adult is probably a lot more difficult.

Interesting note about the "fake Mandarin" above; I always go for the sound (accent, pitch, and rhythm) first when trying to get even the smallest understanding of a foreign language. It seems many musically inclined people do.
 

getbent

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I had to pass two language exams to finish grad school, I did latin and spanish and did fine. My spanish is pretty pathetic. I learned how to get by in a few languages in different locales but feel woefully incompetent. I wish I was truly conversant in vietnamese and spanish... but, I kind of think I will run out of time.
 

Jim622

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I have no excuse. I have been my wife 30 years. My wife is Puerto Rican, she, my daughter, many friends and family speak it. probably 50/50 with English. I just do not pick it up or pay attention when it is happening. No excuse.
 

nvilletele

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The thread title expressly mentions learning a second language as an adult, so I can't include Spanish, since I started learning that while in 4th grade. Continued through middle school, high school and even a little in college.

But if age 20 counts as an "adult," then I can include Japanese, which I started learning as a junior in college. That was when I was spending a year in England, and was able to set up lessons with an Oxford don.

That first year was all grammar, reading and writing, including Kanji from day 1. Second year Japanese class was back in California, during my senior year. It was more reading and writing, but still no conversational Japanese (that was covered in the first year, which I was unable to take as I was in England).

So when I got to Japan after graduation, I still couldn't speak the language despite being able to read and write at a fair level. But within 3 months of living there, immersed in the language, I started to speak it very fluently. And I just got better over the 12 years or so that I lived there.

I also took Japanese classes during my 3 years of grad school, doing all sorts of more esoteric studies, including Bungobun (classical literary Japanese). It was mostly for fun, as it was unrelated to my course of studies.

Ultimately, I was able to compose contracts in Japanese, interpret in business meetings, etc. when I was working for an international law firm in Tokyo.

Lately I've been watching a lot of Japanese TV, after not really having done that for around 25 years . . . Kozure Okami (Lone Wolf and Cub) was one of my all-time favorite TV shows, and I have found the entire run on YouTube . . . and then on Netflix there is Midnight Diner, which I really enjoy though it can run a bit sappy.

I have been toying with the idea of learning French, and even Portuguese as I once had (and still have, less immediate) hopes of retiring in Portugal. But I have yet to make the actual effort. I think I can learn these languages pretty well, as I seem to have a knack for languages, but the real key is always to live in the country and be immersed in the language. It can be done from home, but without hearing the language daily in actual life context, it becomes extremely challenging and becomes much harder work.
 

memorex

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I've learned how to order food in a restaurant and ask for directions to the bathroom in both French and Spanish. So far, I've only used the French when I was in Quebec. In the Mexican restaurants I go to, everybody speaks English.
 

Milspec

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Not foreign, but does anyone know sign language? I think that would be the most useful language to learn as an adult since it is universal.

A quick story:

My Aunt was deaf and we would see her for Thanksgiving when i was a young child. She always tried to teach us kids some signing so that we didn't feel awkward around her. Remember, it was Thanksgiving and I was ages 5-7.

Fast forward about 30 years and I was working as a prison guard. We had a new inmate arrive who was deaf, didn't read lips, and was illiterate!! He spent his entire life living with his mother and never left the house until he bacame a thief.

Anyway, the brass was concerned that this guy would get shot by tower officers since he couldn't read the warning signs nor hear any warning shots. They sent for a person at the local college to come and communicate using sign language, but it was going to take a few hours before they could arrive.

Somebody passed the word that I knew some sign language and even though I strongly advised them that I barely remember anything from my youth, the brass insisted that I speak to the inmate. They figured that anything was better than nothing and it might calm him down.

So there I was, sitting across the desk from this inmate. The small office was full of senior brass standing around us in a circle like it was Lee's surrender. I struggled to remember any of the sign that I was taught and finally went with the first thing that I could remember.

I signed the phrase, the inmate looked confused, the brass were impatient and told me to do it again. I signed the phrase again, sure that I had done it correctly. Again, the inmate looked perplexed and was looking around the room confused.

The Major asked me what I said to him? I told him, "I would like chocolate cake".

I was immediately escorted out of the office.
 




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