The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"After all, when you come right down to it, how many people speak the same language, even when they speak the same language?"... ...Russell Hoban.

Commentary of the Day - August 16, 2003:  Language and Music.  Guest commentary by Ben Carter.

We all started off as geniuses at language acquisition and became  stupider as we got older.  As babies and toddlers we learned to hear and speak, first the sounds, then the words, and finally whole sentences, all without formal instruction.  We still hear and speak this first language (L1) perfectly, like the natives we are.  Some of us also learned (or tried to learn) a second language (L2).  Our ability to hear and speak L2 depends mainly on the age at which we were first exposed to it.  Parents who want their children to be multilingual should look for a preschool that offers substantial exposure to a foreign language.  Kindergarten in America, unfortunately, starts at age five, which is already too late to achieve the best results, even in the rare case that the school takes foreign languages seriously.

Music, like language, depends on our ability to hear and reproduce fine distinctions among sounds.  Children are more likely to develop a sense of absolute pitch if they are given musical training very early.  Absolute pitch is not necessary for a musician, but it helps.  Parents who want the best musical training for their children would be well advised to start piano lessons as early as possible, certainly before kindergarten.

Toddlers exposed to L2 (say, by a nanny with a background very different from that of the mother) are soon bilingual, again without formal instruction.  Compared to these geniuses, American kindergartners are already too old.  They can pick up a second language, but they will speak it with a slight accent.  They don't hear the phonemes of L2 quite as well as native speakers do, and therefore they can't quite reproduce the sounds correctly.  Nevertheless, these kindergartners are brilliant compared to, say, a ten-year-old, who in turn is much smarter in this respect than a typical adult.

There is a wide range of language abilities among adults. Some adults retain the child-like ability to learn new languages without apparent effort.  Most adults can learn another language only imperfectly and with difficulty.  Most of us can't hear the new phonemes properly, and we speak L2 with a thick accent.

The universal ability of the very young to acquire languages, and the variation of abilities among adults, are best understood as results of evolution by natural selection.  Music is harder to explain on evolutionary grounds, but a plausible conjecture is that musical ability, which has no obvious adaptive advantage, is a by-product of linguistic ability.  If this is true, it makes sense that music, like language, is best learned very early.

The ability to learn a language has evolved over the past few million years and is the most important trait that distinguishes human beings from the other great apes.  Natural selection has favored children who learn their mother tongue quickly.  Human children, unlike little chimpanzees, can tell their mothers whether they are hungry, cold, in pain, or unhappy for some other reason.  It is clearly advantageous for children to be able to communicate in this way as soon as possible.  That is why we all started off as geniuses.

For the last few million years there has seldom been a need for older children or adults to learn a second language.   Those who lost their ability to acquire new languages as adults survived about as well as those who retained it.  That is why most adults now find it difficult to pick up a new language.

©2003, Ben Carter
Ben Carter is a freelance writer from California who holds a Ph.D. in physics.  He held a variety of positions in industry and academia before his retirement several years ago.

The IP comments: Ben has surely identified the reason why the IP speaks languages other than English so poorly -- he's relatively tone deaf, and he tried to learn those languages too late in life.  But speaking really bad French does have its advantages.  Even the most hardened Parisian switches to English, when the IP attempts to speak French.

One minor point.  While we have been evolving for a long time, the best evidence suggests that present-day homo sapiens evolved from a common ancestor in Africa about 150,000 years ago, and that language as we know it evolved between 30,000 and 100,000 years ago.


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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.