Luca Lampariello: kids vs adults

Luca has released a very interesting video: in his opinion any adult can acquire great language skills in any foreign language if they want to and know how to do it. According to him, the critical period hypothesis is just an hypothesis.

Whether he is right or not, he has an amazing message to share: language learning is not difficult - it is a lot of work that can be done progressively, and having fun. Highly recommended video

Berta from IDEL
Spanish lessons at Lingq


I also found the video interesting. I see that Luca is selling an mp3 of his Master Class which appears to be in both Russian and English.

I agree with Luca that anyone can learn.

It would appear that there is some uncertainty about the critical period hypothesis.

BTW, I am attending a conference full of linguistics professionals.

I have to move around incognito and in disguise so that I don’t get lynched for usurping the term “linguist”. No, seriously I am really quite enjoying the conference, and the people have been enthusiastic, friendly and delightful in every way.

There seems to be general agreement on our ability to learn throughout our lives and the phenomenon of ongoing neural plasticity. I will be blogging on this and also do some videos on it.

More power to Luca! More power to adult learners!

As I think has been discussed on this site before, there’s more confusion over what the critical period hypothesis actually is than anything else. It refers originally to the idea that if humans don’t acquire a FIRST language by a certain age, they will never achieve full linguistic competence.

This was then extended into 2nd language learning. The original extension of the idea into SLA was that your chances of achieving full native competence were time-limited. And that, for the most part, appears to be true.

But some language teachers extended this to mean that natural learning was therefore completely off-limits to adults and so adults had to study grammar and use an analytical approach to language learning. And some even took this to mean that adults couldn’t learn foreign languages. There’s no evidence for any of this, and it’s not something that you should have expected to hear at a conference of linguists. This was another case of popular misrepresentation of a theoretical proposal.

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It was explained to me at the conference, by a leading North American linguistics academic, that the field of linguistics which used to be dominated by purely logical deduction is now being forced to rely more on experiments using various tools for measuring activity in the brain. As a result, for example, the universal grammar theory is losing support amongst more and more linguists. Similarly, there is greater awareness of the continuing plasticity in the brain.

When we see how effectively adults like Luca, Richard Simcott and others learn languages as adults, and given the lack of clear definition of what is meant by full native competence, it seems to me that the critical period hypothesis is another example of a “logical” premise that will be reevaluated, at least in terms of what it means for language learning. I think is more important to focus on what are the most efficient ways of learning languages. In that sense, I found mostly widespread support for the idea of massive input and exposure as the most efficient way of acquiring new languages. More on that later.

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The critical period hypothesis was never as firmly established, or as widely subscribed to, among linguists as people in language education thought, at least with regard to second language learning. It was never a “fact” or a “done deal” or anything like that. And, at any rate, it was meant to talk about first language acquisition, not about second.

Linguistics, as the scientific study of language, is constantly re-evaluating itself and its ideas. And the ideas in it, like those in any science, are not held to be 100% true, but are ideas that people have varying levels of confidence in. The point isn’t necessarily to be correct, the point is to be less wrong than before. It’s certainly true that the ability to study the brain directly is changing the field.

The problem, I think, is that some of these ideas get taken up by the language education community, often misunderstood, and presented as a “fact”. It’s kind of mindblowing if you think about how much damage has been done by the presentation of the Critical Period Hypothesis as the “fact” that adults can’t learn languages like children can.

I would be curious to hear which leading linguistics academic said that the ability to measure activity in the brain is decreasing support for universal grammar. I don’t see how the two are connected, and it’s not an argument I’ve hard made. There is no one version of universal grammar theory that all linguists support, although Chomsky’s framework is dominant. Chomsky himself, since the 1990s, has been working in the framework of his “minimalist program” which itself is very different than earlier versions of UG, and doesn’t focus as much on the idea of a “grammar hard-wired in the brain” the way earlier versions of the theory did. It may have been this change that the researcher was talking about.

I’m not surprised you found support for massive input and exposure at a linguistics conference. These are the people who really have a sense of the massive complexity of language, and they’re aware that it’s simply not possible to learn a language by trying to memorize its rules.

Rachel Mayberry is the person that said to me that the further west you go in North America the less support there is for any kind of universal grammar theory. The old linguistics where people argued about theories that were based on logical deduction is giving way to conclusions based on experiment and observation, more like a real science. She agreed with me that she believes that the brain reacts to exposure to language in the same way that the brain seeks order out of all phenomena.

She also agreed with me that the UG had become like dogma, almost like religion, and the support for this faith was falling away more and more.

Interesting. I’ve never heard of her, but that doesn’t mean anything. Considering that UBC is in the west, I don’t think it’s true that support for UG dies off as you go west.

UG is just a name for whatever it is in the brain that allows us to process language. There are several different proposals as to what UG actually is. And that professor’s view, that UG does not involve any language-specific properties, is certainly one out there. And, as I think I mentioned in a previous exchange, it’s the current view that Chomsky is more or less expressing in the minimalist program, although he would probably say “may” not involve any language-specific neural properties, at least as far as syntax goes.

Given that there are so many definitions of UG, and that theses definitions/theories have changed over the years, it’s not really much use talking about it unless you define your terms. If she really is arguing that UG is like a dogma, I’d be curious to hear which particular proposals she thinks people are dogmatically adhering to. I’m not sure anyone’s arguing that the brain reacts differently to language than it it does to other things, the question is just what neural systems it uses and whether these systems, or some of these systems, are specifically oriented to language.

There is a point of view that the human brain comes hard-wired with all kinds of specific and discrete neural systems, not just for language, but for all kinds of things. There is also an opposing view. While UG was originally used just as a kind of placeholder word for whatever it was in the brain that processes language, it has become associated with the view that the brain has many language-specific systems, or hard-wired “grammatical” knowledge that is particular to language.

The brain doesn’t just seek order out of the chaos of linguistic input, it creates order where there is none, as in the case of children creating grammatically complex creole languages out of pidgins, and deaf children spontaneously generating grammatically complex signed languages. This is some of the strongest evidence for a UG of some kind, in the sense of hard-wired linguistic knowledge.

My argument with you about UG has not been to dogmatically insist that UG is correct, it has been that I don’t think you really have a good understanding of current linguistic theory. I base that largely on the videos you made on the subject of linguistics, including the one you subsequently deleted. When linguists propose that children are born with some “grammar” already in their heads, I think that you think of the sort of grammar you find in grammar books, whereas linguists are talking about something else. You would have to read some linguistic theory to see what they’re talking about, but the basic ideas are things like Principles and Parameters in syntax. It’s not gammar in the way we normally think of grammar.

Why not take advantage of the opportunity there to discuss with someone whether or not your understanding of UG matches theirs? Particularly, you might want to ask for some examples of the type of “grammar” that constitutes UG. As I only have an undergraduate degree in linguistics, and I’m not a professional researcher, I take no position on the correctness of different theoretical proposals in linguistics, I’m just concerned that the discipline and its proposals be accurately represented.

At any rate, I’m glad that you seem to be getting a slightly higher opinion of linguists :slight_smile: They can be a fun bunch!