Wednesday, July 22, 2009

don't believe the lies!

You will hear the lies. You will read the lies. Don't believe the lies!

Let me list the lies in the article, Unraveling how children become bilingual so easily.

  1. The best time to learn a foreign language: Between birth and age 7.
  2. The brain tunes out sounds that don't fit.
  3. babies being raised bilingual — by simply speaking to them in two languages — can learn both in the time it takes most babies to learn one.
  4. While new language learning is easiest by age 7, the ability markedly declines after puberty.
  5. As an adult, "it's a totally different process. You won't learn it in the same way. You won't become (as good as) a native speaker."
  6. "You'll be surprised," Kuhl says. "They do seem to pick it up like sponges."

Why you should not believe what researchers say about language learning

These researchers have no clue as to how people learn languages. They do not really know what language learning is, therefor they cannot create a valid test. All of the researchers tend to test language-learning ability in one way. That way is to test how well individual words are learned in a short period of time. Sometimes as little as one day. First of all, language learning is not just learning words or vocabulary. Second, being able to recall the words the next day does not mean that they have been learned.

In the article above, it refers heavily to recognition of sounds not in your native language. There has been an erroneous conclusion that is often repeated. Sometimes it is stated as such: you cannot hear sounds not in your native language. That would be obviously false. All sounds enter your ears whether or not you've ever heard them before. This article states it in another way, saying that we lose an ability to distinguish sounds by the age of 11 months. This is erroneous. Rather than losing, we actually gain an ability to consolidate sounds and make sense of them. Have you ever thought somebody said one thing when they actually had said another, in your native language?

The brain tries to make sense of what you hear. There is a lot of processing going on to make sense of the language. The article mentions the difficulty of Japanese people being able to distinguish the difference between the words lake and rake. Of course their mind would only bring up the word that they know if they didn't really know both words. If they did know both words but always used the same pronunciation in their mind then they hadn't even established the difference in the words. Most likely, rake would not be a familiar or necessary word for a Japanese person.

Japanese people can hear the difference in pronunciation, but they don't remember which pronunciation had which meaning. That is the actual problem. They may not even know which sound is L and which one is R, but they can hear the difference! Now, if you don't know which sound is which, you will immediately forget which one you heard. The problem then would be that the sound cannot be accurately identified. The problem is not being unable to hear the difference.

I'm sure that my explanation above will be very unclear for many of you. But let me continue. A sentence from the article begins with, "Japanese college students who'd had little exposure to spoken English..." That identifies a big problem, doesn't it?! By college, students have studied English for 6 years. If you spend 6 years not listening to English but studying it, then you will not have made a distinction in your brain between the sounds of words.

The solution is not to teach the difference but to listen a lot. Show me students who had a lot of exposure to spoken English and you will find that they can tell you which sound is being spoken. Even if they start getting that input after puberty or after reaching adulthood, they will be able to do it.

If you start with a false assumption, your research will have false conclusions. There are better ways to research language learning than to base it on tests which don't test what you think they are testing. So please don't believe anything these researchers tell you about language learning! Don't assume that just because they are professional researchers that they are doing anything correctly. If they want to research language learning, why don't they go and actually learn some languages!


  1. Nice. I was just reading that article yesterday. It's really cool that you went through and debunked the nonsense.

  2. Well, I'd say the credibility of the "researchers" depends on the researchers themselves a lot as well. I would imagine that there still is a lot of valid research done.

    You made a good point, though: question things before accepting them.

  3. Hi

    Regarding your Google doc, I believe it would be helpful if you also kept track of what types of programming you were watching (preferably in English). Sitcom, news, cartoon etc. It's also more interesting to other readers. Also, an autosum feature at the bottom would be neat and perhaps also motivating. I'll try to do the same. Not sure how to do it though. Skype - no microphone, I don't like chats in general.

  4. @Reineke

    Right now I am not watching anything in particular. If after a few minutes I find that I don't like what is on I will change channels, so I usually watch programs that are already in progress or just about to end. There is a lot of news on. If they start reporting about something I'm not interested in, I will change the channel. So I am watching too many different things to try to keep track of them all.

    There is a second tab on the spreadsheet called Totals. Go to the top of the page and click the Totals link. There you can see the automatically summed totals.

  5. I've just changed the spreadsheet so that the Totals tab is the first one, so now when you open the Google spreadsheet you will see the totals first. You can click Activities to see the other tab.

  6. The final statement of your article nailed it! What better research than to learn something yourself?


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