We All Used to Be Geniuses

For adults who are learning a new language, it’s not fair that as they stumble through the exercises for conjugation, be concerned about grammar textbooks, and complete worksheets for constructing subordinate phrases, their children soak up the language while painting in the preschool. Within a few months, the proper syntax is pouring from the toddlers’ mouths, with no visible physical effort on their part.

In her 2010 TED Talk, research scientist Patricia Kuhl described children as learning languages as “geniuses.” In contrast, those who begin learning the language as adults do not get to the point of proficiency comparable to native, even after years of arduous work. One of the most enduring mysteries in science is why adult learners, having superior cognition abilities, generally perform less than children in the process of learning languages.

The answer may lie in the curse of previous knowledge. When brains make neural commitments to patterns of the first language, they hinder the ability to acquire the new structures, particularly if they’re different from the previous. Another aspect of the tale could be that adults are unable to learn and not due to their superior intellectual abilities.

There is evidence to suggest evidence of the presence of two distinct systems of instruction, each having its hardware for learning: the automatic system that involves information that is communicated and absorbed into the mind and an implicit reflective system. Reflective systems are perfect for learning calculus or recognizing logical errors, tasks where adults are more successful than children. However, when it comes down to learning to ride a bicycle, explicit instruction on the physiology of muscle or the mechanics of motion isn’t the same as pure instinct and repeated trials and errors. Find out what stops you from falling, and you’ll be able to do more of this.

The two systems compete with each other to control. As children reach adulthood, the automatic system can manage increasingly complex information. It takes on more of the responsibility for studying material previously given to the less sophisticated reflexive system. Adults, however, not children, can tackle the language’s syntax that is armed with explicit rules for grammatical usage such as: In French, ensure that the adjective is given an identical gender to that of the noun it refers to.

It could be their fall.

Rats beat adults in this more complicated task! Most likely, the rodents, not being enticed to make an explicitly defined rule, rely on the more efficient reflexive system.

The reflective system might be a poor method for learning specific aspects of the language. In an experiment conducted by Amy Finn, participants were asked to learn the patterns of a fictional language. Half of them were instructed to try to identify the basic patterns, and the remainder were instructed to listen and color. The deliberate learners performed worse at identifying abstract grammatical classifications (but more adept at a simple task that involved identifying specific words from the speaking in a continuous manner). In an additional study conducted by Bharath Chandrasekaran, the idea of encouraging English people to rely on more of a reflexive rather than reflective learning hindered their ability to classify tones in Mandarin. This skill is essential for discerning Mandarin terms and is a problem that many English users struggle with.

In a paradox, it’s also the most detailed information typically given to the automatic, more instinctual system, possibly because it’s challenging to decipher complex information by a specific norm. This tendency extends beyond language to other types of information, as well.

In a research conducted by the University of Leuven in Belgium, Ben Vermaercke and his coworkers devised two tasks that required students to categorize images with stripes into categories. In one of the tasks, they were built around a single characteristic. (For example, one category could comprise images where stripes were slightly off an axis vertical, in another, it could comprise only images with thin stripes and not those with fine stripes). In the second case, these categories became more complex and were based on stripe thickness and orientation. Because there was no standard for the categories, judgments were based on the general similarities.

Adult participants did poorly on the second test compared with the previous, and, as if it wasn’t sufficient to be overtaken by children in the field of language learning, they were outclassed by rodents on the second, more complicated task! It is likely that the rats, and not be enticed by the possibility of making explicit rules, were relying on the automatic system that is more effective.

Language generally resembles the complex categorization process: It’s awash with patterns that can’t be easily expressed verbally, utterly absurd patterns. An excellent illustration is the English-specific word The, and its proper usage is a mystery to even fluent non-native language speakers. English. The following sentences illustrate the issue:

Pam was on trains to Philadelphia.

Pam was brought to Philadelphia via train.

Cary took a walk to school each day.

Cary was walking to the store each day.

Native speakers may not understand why specific articles should be used in certain situations but not in others. However, they know that it’s odd when they get the wrong answer. It’s because they’ve been taught these rules, not as excessively thinking, knowledgeable adults, instead of as the innocent, adept language learners that they were as young children.

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