Age and fluency: new info about language-learning

For classical singers, and particularly in opera, learning multiple languages to actual fluency is immensely important — particularly for those who are constantly on the road.  We study diction, and hopefully language, for the “big four” (German, Italian, French, English) in school, but even that heralded tradition is ignored in some learning centers.  We were recently informed that one of SoCal’s largest opera programs, for instance, does not require extensive diction classes as part of its program — we’re looking into this out of sheer horror and curiosity, and may write more on that topic later.

Singers talk extensively about “getting fluent” and use a variety of methods to get there.  But while conversational function is attainable, can we ever really get to that point where the natives can’t hear an accent, or our grammar flows naturally, without mental grammatical juggling?

For some time now, linguistic pundits have maintained that only small children can truly reach this point with more than one language: you had to get there by about age eight.  Thankfully, this understanding has led to many useful improvements in educational language opportunities, in school and beyond, designed specifically for kids.  But a recent study, a massive endeavor driven by a social media quiz you may have taken yourself, indicates that while starting early is important, true fluency can still be achieved by approximately age eighteen, giving us more hope for our students and children.

As the web-fueled “global village” makes our lives more and more diverse, it has become clear that learning additional languages is an invaluable tool — with or without Google Translate.  The ability to read, write, speak and sing clearly in other tongues will continue to be career gold. So including this practice in teaching, mentoring and in our daily lives is still worth it.  For those of us who have been “legal” for awhile, there’s also excellent hope for us in this research, as the study also confirms that functionality can still be learned at many ages: we can learn new words and become very proficient at multiple speaks, at just about any age.  So don’t be afraid to get your Duolingo on, or check out the resources developed as the Fluent Forever program, which is designed by erstwhile Lister (and now Chicago resident) Gabriel Wyner.

Read about the recent study in this article from Scientific American: “At What Age Does Our Ability to Learn a New Language Like a Native Speaker Disappear?

…and just for fun, here’s an article about the untranslatable!

2 thoughts on “Age and fluency: new info about language-learning”

  1. I lived in Norway from 1979-85, aged 30-36 and became fluent in Norwegian before returning to the U.S. I made a trip there last Fall, after 32 years away. Three weeks before the trip, Norwegian came streaming back into my mind. I conversed in Norwegian with family and friends while there! Though I couldn’t remember all my vocabulary, I was definitely “thinking” in Norwegian again. I am having great fun on Duolingo, rehabbing my high school French and learning Italian for the first time. I’m experiencing “thinking” in these languages also. I’m now 69, so I question this study!

    • In terms of “total” fluency, I think what they’re mainly talking about is that point where the accent as well as the thinking are like a native speaker. But your comment is such a great example of why we should never stop learning new languages — it’s absolutely possible to become fully functional in many languages throughout life. Brava on the Norwegian!

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