Love of Learning Language Transcends All Ages

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Every Tuesday, Andy Mayer, 77, leads Hilda Mintzes, 84, and others in a Latin study group. They tackle Ovid's "The Art of Love," translating line by line -- "Your eyes will not be permitted to see her ankles"-- and practice language exercises about Caesar.

What Mayer and his students at the Institute for Learning in Retirement in the District also are doing is smashing stereotypes about language learning and the age at which it is possible to learn. Mintzes loves it: "There is something about the rhythm about Latin that is intellectually stimulating."

In the field of foreign language learning, the mantra has become "the younger the better," with suggestions that anybody older than teen actress Lindsay Lohan should forget about learning another language. Some parents think first grade is too late to start.

That's plain wrong, said linguist Robert M. DeKeyser, and, in fact, some adults can take up a new language -- even those considered extremely difficult, such as Arabic or Japanese -- and become proficient enough to be an FBI translator, if they work at it hard enough.

"Otherwise, we would have to close whole branches of the government," he said.

What a focused adult learning a new language most likely won't be able to do is pass as a native; nobody would mistake the Austrian-born California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, for a U.S. native. That talent is probably not important to the majority of language students trying to learn how to, for example, order moules mariniere and a bottle of Bordeaux on Paris's Champs-Elysee.

Though nobody is quite sure how the brain handles language, most linguists agree that children and adults learn and retain second languages differently because the brain changes over time with knowledge and experience.

Children learn inductively, by example and by interacting with the environment around them, and adults tend to learn analytically and deductively, according to former professor Charles Stansfield. His Rockville-based company, Second Language Testing Inc., publishes tests designed to measure foreign language learning aptitude.

Some linguists equate children to "sponges" who soak up all they hear, observations that helped fuel a movement to introduce foreign language early in elementary school.

This also led to the notion of a "critical period" in second language learning, the hypothesis that there is a heightened ability to learn a second language in childhood and that this ability declines sharply at some point, according to Grant Goodall, professor of linguistics at University of California at San Diego and director of its Linguistics Language Program.

Linguists concede that they don't agree on what age that is, but they agree that the critical period often is misunderstood.

For one thing, the critical period generally refers to pronunciation, said Susan Knight, a Spanish professor at Central Michigan University, and not the ability to actually learn another language. (Some experts speak about different critical periods, for other aspects of language learning, such as syntax or grammar.)

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