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Re: [ontolog-forum] language and thinking

To: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Ed Barkmeyer <edbark@xxxxxxxx>
Date: Tue, 31 Aug 2010 12:44:22 -0400
Message-id: <4C7D3166.6080909@xxxxxxxx>
John Bottoms wrote:
> We know that the window for learning speech closes pretty tightly
> by 15 years of age.    (01)

I wrote:
>> 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 ...
>>         (02)

Randall Schulz wrote:    (03)

> 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).
>       (04)

I only mentioned age 40 because the Army Language School has very few 
students older than that.  Most of the trainees are Special Ops 
personnel.  I expect that the State Department schools have a much wider 
range of ages.     (05)

Chris wrote:
> It's just empirically false.  Many people become reasonably fluent in
> languages they are only first exposed to in college.
>       (06)

Chris takes the logician's view that John Bottoms' thesis is 
demonstrably false, because there are common counterexamples.  And I 
agree with "reasonably fluent".    (07)

Nonetheless, the ability to learn new languages at age 20 or 30 is not 
general; it is a "talent", possessed by some minority of the 
population.  The Language School folk screen their candidates before 
investing in them and take less than 1 in 3, and still wash out some 
percentage of their students.  Many college students learn only to read 
a foreign language and write it adequately, and do both by thinking in 
their native tongue and translating to/from the foreign language.  That 
is a distinct skill from hear/speak, which involves the connection of 
concept with utterance without an intermediate alternative 
verbalization.  Conversely, I know a number of tradesmen who have 
learned to speak Spanish out of workplace necessity, mostly by exposure 
and perhaps some Berlitz CD.  So the 'talent' may be broader-based than 
is apparent, and "social/cultural value" as the driver  may really be 
what distinguishes the successes and failures.    (08)

John Sowa may well be right that the "talent" is influenced by nurture 
-- early encounters with non-native phonemes -- as well as nature.  
Certainly that view has been offered by many 'amateur linguists' to 
explain the ability of British and Americans to speak their language 
without recognizable accent:  "You must have been exposed to <language 
(group)> when you were small."  But I also know several individuals who 
were not exposed to the specific language in question, e.g., Japanese or 
Russian, before age 20, although they were exposed to French or German 
or Spanish in their community.  So John's generalization to "foreign 
phonemes" is more likely to be true.  What is created in the young mind 
is the experience of hearing, interpreting and producing non-native sounds.    (09)

-Ed    (010)

Edward J. Barkmeyer                        Email: edbark@xxxxxxxx
National Institute of Standards & Technology
Manufacturing Systems Integration Division
100 Bureau Drive, Stop 8263                Tel: +1 301-975-3528
Gaithersburg, MD 20899-8263                FAX: +1 301-975-4694    (011)

"The opinions expressed above do not reflect consensus of NIST, 
 and have not been reviewed by any Government authority."    (012)

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