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Re: [ontolog-forum] language and thinking

To: ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
From: Randall R Schulz <rschulz@xxxxxxxxx>
Date: Mon, 30 Aug 2010 15:24:02 -0700
Message-id: <201008301524.03285.rschulz@xxxxxxxxx>
On Monday August 30 2010, Ed Barkmeyer wrote:
> John Bottoms wrote:
> > We know that the window for learning speech closes pretty tightly
> > by 15 years of age.    (01)

I might be willing to accept that if interpreted as: "If an individual 
is not exposed to speech at all before age 15 they will have an almost 
insurmountable challenge in acquiring it at all thereafter."    (02)

But inability to learn new languages after age 15? I just don't accept 
that. I made good progress starting to learn Mandarin at age 20. I only 
took a few semesters and had little opportunity to use it afterward, so 
at this point I retain only remnants.    (03)

> This is a bit oversimplified.  The window that closes in most
> individuals is the ability to learn to hear, distinguish and create
> language _sounds_.  The Army Language School and diplomatic schools
> have been quite successful teaching persons as old as 40 new
> languages -- to read, hear, understand, and make themselves
> understood.  In many cases, this involves changes in speech
> organization, and conceptualization.  In Japanese, for example, there
> are different counting terms for different kinds of things, and
> African languages often distinguish things Americans don't usually
> distinguish and don't distinguish certain things Americans commonly
> do.  But the talented American student is able to learn them and
> "instinctively" use them correctly. The problem that these schools
> have is the elimination of the "American accent". Learning to make
> the new sounds is very difficult for persons over 16, and for some
> tongues learning to distinguish the foreign sounds is very difficult
> as well.  (Everett talks about Pirahã being particularly difficult in
> this regard.)  And yet, there are occasional persons over 40 who can
> still master the distinction and production of foreign sounds so well
> as to pass as native speakers.  (T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) is a
> famous example.)
> ...    (04)

40 seems like an oddly arbitrary age, to me. My understanding of our 
brains is that from the mid 20s on (when development of our frontal 
cortex is complete) there are no real developmental or senescence 
boundaries or inflection points in any performance metric, just very 
slow shifts in some parameters of neurological function (pathologies 
aside, of course).    (05)

Randall Schulz    (06)

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