As 2018 closes, you may be thinking of your resolutions for the new year. Why not put your linguistic skills to the test and learn a foreign language?
A new study on second language learning has recently taken the media by storm. A range of headlines – from the BBC to the Daily Mail and The Guardian – all trumpeted the depressing message that it’s impossible to become fluent in a foreign language after around age ten. All of these reports dramatically misrepresented the findings from the study, and the message they sent is flat-out wrong.
For one thing, the words “fluency” or “fluent” never even appear in the original study, published in the journal Cognition. There’s a good reason for this: fluency is not what the study’s authors, or any other scientists studying the effect of age in foreign language learning, are interested in.
To be fluent in another language means that you can communicate with relative ease, that is, without it being a real strain on either the speaker or the listener. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is fluent in English, despite the fact that you can hear he is not a native speaker and that he may, on occasion, use the word “delicious” when he probably meant to say “delightful”.
Pretty much anyone can become fluent in pretty much any language at pretty much any age. It’s not even true that young children learn languages faster than older children or adults: if you expose different age groups to the same amount of instruction in a foreign language, the older ones invariably do better, both initially and in the long run. Learners of any age can achieve a brilliant, even nativelike, command of the vocabulary of another language, including such challenging structures as idioms or proverbs.
The ‘critical window’
The puzzling thing about older learners – something the authors of the new study also found – is that they seem to have more problems mastering some, but not all, grammatical phenomena.
A good example for this is the fact that, in English, most verbs have to have an “s” added to them in the third person singular: so it’s I/you/we/they walk but he/she walks. Many second language learners keep getting even such comparatively simple grammar rules wrong, even though they may have an amazing command of vocabulary. However, it seems that if you learn the language at a younger age, you have an easier time mastering the kinds of structures that older learners keep struggling with, and the same is true for acquiring a native-like accent.
Linguists remain divided on what the reason is for the difficulty many older speakers have at fully mastering these most elusive pockets of grammar. Some – including the authors of the Cognition study – subscribe to what’s called the “critical window” hypothesis.
They suggest we have a special mechanism in our brain which specifically enables us to learn a language, and that this mechanism is “switched off” around puberty – the age at which most speakers have mastered their native language.
Other researchers argue that there is nothing language-specific about the slightly worse performance of older learners. Rather, they suggest it is down to those changes of circumstances which tend to happen as people get older, such as having less time to learn, a decline in our general ability to learn and our memory skills, and a more stable sense of identity.
No cut off at age ten
What is new about the Cognition study is that, by the usual standards of linguistic investigations, it uses a dataset of unprecedented size. Through an internet grammar quiz shared on social media, the authors collected almost 700,000 responses, two thirds of them from people for whom English was a second language. This allowed them to model the relationship between age of learning and proficiency in more detail than had previously been possible.
They found that the accuracy of the responses on the grammar quiz declined sharply for learners who began studying English after the age of 17, a long way off the age of ten, which is the age most of media reports focused on.
This study is a novel one, and I predict that we’ll see many researchers in future making use of such tools and collecting much more data than we have previously been able to. It will doubtlessly inform and shape the scholarly discussion about whether there is or isn’t a critical period for language learning. But the claim that its findings suggest that after age ten you are too old to learn a foreign language fluently is one of the worst misrepresentations of a scientific outcome that I have ever seen.
Questions of how and why micro-features of grammar are learned in a second language have important implications for linguistic theory, but they are of little consequence to the actual learner. You can become a perfectly fluent speaker of a foreign language at any age, and small imperfections of grammar or accent often just add to the charm.
Learn a new language. Learn a new instrument. Pick up a new sport. Or don’t do any of these. But whatever you decide to do or not do, don’t blame your age.
What are the most important languages of the 21st century?
It’s hard to imagine a young person nowadays who doesn’t speak or study at least one language besides their mother tongue. Globalization forces so many people to communicate and cooperate more in a variety of businesses. But, what are the most important languages of the 21st century?
From academic collaboration and professional networking, to transport and traveling – the modern world simply requires us to use different languages. But there are more than 7,000 languages worldwide and it seems difficult to pick the most important languages.
But, it’s not really that confusing, as only 23 languages account for more than half of the world’s population. And, of those, the following 10 could be considered the most important languages.
Most important languages to study
If you think about the languages you would like to learn, consider your future plans and think about how you see yourself in the coming years. Language experts from Aussiewritings.com often say that language learning depends on personal preferences and practical reasons to master a language. So, you shouldn’t decide the most important languages simply by chance.
If you need help to decide, here are some very good reasons to learn these 10 most important languages:
More than 375 million people are native English speakers. But as many as 1.5 billion use it to some extent. English is the most influential in the world by far, making one of the most important languages.
Being essentially the mother tongue of the internet and computer technology, English is omnipresent globally. It is also important to add that it’s the official language in the U.S., Great Britain and Canada, which are all on the list of the world’s 10 biggest economies.
Chinese / Mandarin
There is not a single language in the world with more native speakers than Chinese. Namely, 982 million persons are native speakers, while altogether 1.1 billion people know the Chinese Mandarin dialect. Though the vast majority of people use it in China, the country is so powerful globally that this language certainly deserves a place among the most important languages.
It seems like China will become the world’s leading economy by 2050, which also means that it will become even more influential worldwide.
Spanish is also one of the most widespread languages. There are around 330 million native speakers, while more than 420 million use it at least as their second language.
Spanish is the primary language in more than 20 countries, the majority of which are situated in Latin America. However, it is very important in the U.S. as well, since around 35 million people in this country use Spanish at home.
Another Asian language is on the list of most important languages due to this country’s economic strength and influence. Around 127 million speak Japanese natively and one more million use it to some extent.
Though it seems difficult to comprehend its symbols at first, Japanese is a beautiful language and not much more demanding than many European counterparts. It’s not too popular outside Japan, but chances are you’ll need to learn it if you’re dealing with information technologies and other modern industries.
Germany has been Europe’s most dominant economy for decades and its language is the most spoken in the European continent. Along with 105 million native speakers, there are also 80 million people around the globe who use it as their second language.
This language sounds rather serious and authoritative, which perfectly mirrors the country’s determination to keep the position of one of the global powers; and stay on the list of the most important languages!
Russian is the native language of some of the world’s best novelists, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, which is more than good reason to start learning it.
In addition, more than 150 million people speak Russian as their primary language and an additional 110 million use it on a nonnative level.
This makes it one of the most important languages, as it is extremely influential among all Euro-Asian countries. Russian has the status of the official language in 38 territories.
French used to be the primary language of diplomatic discourse for centuries. Today, 79 million people primarily speak French, but the overall number of speakers climbs up to 370 million, which really proves how important this language is.
Of course, France is still the sixth biggest economy in the world and Paris remains a genuine cultural epicenter. And keep in mind one more detail – French is widely considered to be the language of love, which means, it has to be one of the most important languages!
This is the official language of the Arabic League, which consists of not less than 22 countries. There are more than 205 million people in this region but the language gains additional strength from another 100 million non-native speakers worldwide.
No need to stop there – Arabic is the liturgical language of an entire Muslim civilization, which spreads its influence to around 1.5 billion people. So, this fact alone makes Arabic one of the most important languages on the planet.
Hindi is the standardized language of India and several other surrounding countries. Its 450 million primary users and additional 200 million non-native speakers make Hindi the forth most spoken language on Earth.
But its relevance also lies within the power of country’s economy. India is the seventh largest economy in the world and is expected to grab second position by 2050.
More than 215 million persons speak native Portuguese, while there are 235 million speakers in total. It’s the primary language in Portugal, Brazil and seven other countries, and is often considered the major language of the Southern Hemisphere. Which makes it one of the most important languages to know.
This list of the most important languages is based on the number of speakers and their influence in the modern world. But in order to decide what language to learn, you need to consider both the issues of practicability and likability.
You will only master a language if you truly enjoy it, so pay attention and choose according to this criterion, too.
(Article source: Various)