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Step into the linguistic boxing ring


Don’t worry whether there’s a critical period for language learning, just do whatever works to achieve your goal, says Melanie Butler.

Stephen Pinker has well and truly thrown the MIT cat among the proverbial ELT pigeons. The celebrity psycholinguist is among the authors of a new paper based on a grammar quiz taken by over half a million learners on Facebook.

It claims to show that, when it comes to natural acquisition of native-level syntax even native-speakers don’t achieve it until they are 30. And the rate of acquisition slows dramatically once they hit 18.

The critical age hypothesis – that there is an age ‘window’ for acquiring language – is alive and well and living in Boston. The row about it on the internet has gone viral.

Our Twitter feed caught fire, with at least two professors and a senior World Bank educationalist copying the Gazette in on their responses.

So, what’s the big deal?

The MIT research upsets a lot of linguists who have long believed that the critical period was shorter, ending at around eight years old.

In the red corner we have the sociolinguists concerned how language is used.

They don’t believe in the critical age hypothesis at all. The only way to acquire a language, they believe, is implicitly – acquiring it through input rather than ‘lessons’. And they believe virtually any human being can do it – no matter their age.

In the blue corner are the psycholinguists and the neuroscientists arguing about how it is processed. Both of them are obsessed by native-speaker competence.

In the middle of this linguistic boxing ring are the world’s language teachers worrying how the hell they can turn their learners into native speakers of English.

But why even try?

There are, say the sociolinguists, documented cases of adults who do not start learning their target language until late in life and achieve native-speaker competence.

I’m sure there are, but to judge by the Pinker study the odds against doing so are 400,000 to one.

The odds for immigrant kids entering school in their host community under the age of 12 by contrast, are brilliant. Most of them will end up at the same level as simultaneous bilinguals – though it will take them a few years longer.

My own personal experience, for what it’s worth, is that you can acquire a language naturally as an adult. But I have no idea if you can easily reach native-speaker competence. But then, I have no idea why you would want to.

I am a serial acquirer of languages. Apart from some basic school Latin, I have never learnt a language in a classroom, but I speak three Romance languages.

I acquired all of them by natural immersion while living in the country.

I acquired the first one aged six, when I found myself the only English speaker in a French primary school, and just had to get on with it.

I didn’t spend any time worrying about learning French, I was too busy worrying about learning about Merovingian kings in French and thus avoiding the wrath of the dreaded history teacher.

I am, I have been told, a lapsed bilingual. I still have a good French accent – though I notice my Parisian guttural [ʁ] isn’t what it used to be.

My knowledge of grammaticality is pretty native-like and absolutely automatised though, like most French eight-year-olds, I can’t do the past historic or the imperfect subjunctive.

My vocabulary is pathetic. I can talk about toys, food and King Clovis’s wife, but the minute the conversation turns to grown-up stuff like politics, narcotics or sex I am lost.

When I first meet French people they think I am French but appallingly uneducated.

Nobody thinks I am Spanish or Italian. I acquired both languages in my early twenties and although I did not learn them in a classroom I certainly acquired them explicitly.

I set out to do it.

I can remember wandering around Madrid talking to people in a mixture of French and Spanish and asking them explicitly to fill in my missing grammar: ‘What is the third person singular of the present tense of the verb decir?’

My vocabulary is pretty strong; I can discourse on politics for hours. My grammar is full of holes but I get by.

My accent is perfectly comprehensible – I can trill my rs like a Madrileño or a Roman but some phonemes are still noticeably foreign.

Nobody ever thinks I am English, though, because everyone knows the English-speakers can’t speak other languages.

As the French say: What do we call a person who speaks many languages? A multilingual.

And what do we call a person who speaks two languages? A bilingual.

And a person who speaks one language? An English-speaker.

I am not a typical English-speaker. I am a serial acquirer. But I do not have native-like mastery of either Spanish or Italian. Was that because I was too old when I started to learn them?

Possibly. But then I am not sure it was ever my intention to reach that level. I didn’t need to. In France I was an immigrant child. In Italy and Spain I was an itinerant English teacher passing through.

The whole argument about ‘native-speaker-like’ competence seems to me to be a waste of time.

Unless you are an immigrant in an English-speaking country, why would you even bother to attempt that level of proficiency?

Because whatever else we don’t know about language acquisition, we know that it takes a hell of a long time.

A native-speaker child has 5,000 hours of input before they make their first sentence.

An immigrant child enrolled in school in the UK or the US aged five or six will take between five and seven years of English medium schooling, to catch up with native speaker peers.

Why would the government of Spain, or Germany or China, want to give that kind of time in the school curriculum to learning a second language?

After all, a good B2 with a wonky but comprehensible accent and the ability to read academic books in English is normally the most you really need.

Take the Dutch. They don’t start teaching the L2 until kids are ten, explain grammar explicitly, use lots of L1 in the classroom but don’t dub their television. They get most kids to B2 in two foreign language by the age of 15.

What is wrong with that?

Who are these goddam American professors to tell you it’s impossible to learn a language explicitly?

Who are all these monolingual native speakers telling you that you are doing it all wrong? Just do whatever works to get the largest possible number of kids to the level you need them to be with the skills you need them to have.

And do it in the fastest and most effective way. English belongs to the world, not just to the native speakers.