双语:研究显示 想学外语到18岁都不算晚

双语:研究显示 想学外语到18岁都不算晚
2018年05月10日 11:16 爱语吧


  The older you get the more difficult it is to learn to speak French like a Parisian. But no one knows exactly what the cutoff point is—at what age it becomes harder, for instance, to pick up noun-verb agreements in a new language. In one of the largest linguistics studies ever conducted—a viral internet survey that drew two thirds of a million respondents—researchers from three Boston-based universities showed children are proficient at learning a second language up until the age of 18, roughly 10 years later than earlier estimates. But the study also showed that it is best to start by age 10 if you want to achieve the grammatical fluency of a native speaker.


  To parse this problem, the research team, which included psychologist Steven Pinker, collected data on a person’s current age, language proficiency and time studying English. The investigators calculated they needed more than half a million people to make a fair estimate of when the “critical period” for achieving the highest levels of grammatical fluency ends. So they turned to the world’s greatest experimental subject pool: the internet.

  为了分析这个问题,研究团队需要收集的信息有:受调查者的年龄、语言流利程度、开始学习英语的时间等。研究人员们他们计算得出,为了更客观地得到这个关键时间点,他们需要超过50万份数据。鉴于数据量庞大,研究团队把调查目标转到了互联网。谈及这项调查为什么能得到这么多人的支持时,主要研究者之一,波士顿学院的心理学助理教授Josh Hartshorne分享了他们的经验。

  They created a short online grammar quiz called Which English? that tested noun–verb agreement, pronouns, prepositions and relative clauses, among other linguistic elements. From the responses, an algorithm predicted the tester’s native language and which dialect of English (that is, Canadian, Irish, Australian) they spoke. For example, some of the questions included phrases a Chicagoan would deem grammatically incorrect but a Manitoban would think is perfectly acceptable English.

  他们开发了一套名为“Which English?”的线上测试,测试内容包括代词,介词和关系从句等一些基础的语法。由于各地英语语法存在一些差异,所以在答题者回答完问题后,算法就能预测答题者的母语以及所属的英语方言区。例如,一些问题中会包含芝加哥人认为不太对而马尼托人觉得一点问题都没有的短语。

  The researchers got a huge response by providing respondents with “something that is intrinsically rewarding,” says Josh Hartshorne, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College, who led the study while he was a postdoc at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The small gift to the respondents was a guess about their background. According to Hartshorne: “If it correctly figures out that you are in fact a German-American, people are like, ‘Oh my god, science is awesome!’ And when it’s wrong, they’re like, ‘Ha ha, stupid robot.’ Either way, it’s entertaining and interesting and something that they can think about and talk about with their friends.”


  Hartshorne’s tactic worked. At its peak, the quiz attracted 100,000 hits a day. It was shared 300,000 times on Facebook, made the front page of Reddit and became a trending topic on 4chan, where a thoughtful discussion ensued about how the algorithm could determine dialect from the grammar questions. The study brought in native speakers of 38 different languages, including 1 percent of Finland’s population.

  实践证明, Hartshorne教授这个主意起到了很好的效果。这个测试在最高峰的一天有10万的点击量,在Facebook上总计被分享了30万次,在reddit登上了首页,在4chan成为了热搜话题。人们就这个算法如何从测试题中判断出回答者的方言区讨论得不亦乐乎。最终,总共有说38种语言的当地人参与了进来,其中包括了芬兰1%的人口。

  Based on people’s grammar scores and information about their learning of English, the researchers developed models that predicted how long it takes to become fluent in a language and the best age to start learning. They concluded that the ability to learn a new language, at least grammatically, is strongest until the age of 18 after which there is a precipitous decline. To become completely fluent, however, learning should start before the age of 10.


  There are three main ideas as to why language-learning ability declines at 18: social changes, interference from one’s primary language and continuing brain development. At 18, kids typically graduate high school and go on to start college or enter the work force full-time. Once they do, they may no longer have the time, opportunity or learning environment to study a second language like they did when they were younger. Alternatively, it is possible that after one masters a first language, its rules interfere with the ability to learn a second. Finally, changes in the brain that continue during the late teens and early 20s may somehow make learning harder.


  This is not to say that we cannot learn a new language if we are over 20. There are numerous examples of people who pick up a language later in life, and our ability to learn new vocabulary appears to remain constant, but most of us will not be able to master grammar like a native speaker—or probably sound like one either. Being a written quiz, the study could not test for accent, but prior research places the critical period for speech sounds even earlier.


  Although the study was conducted only in English, the researchers believe the findings will transfer to other languages, and they are currently developing similar tests for Spanish and Mandarin.


  Perhaps even more important than when one learns a language is how. People who learned via immersion—living in an English-speaking country more than 90 percent of the time—were significantly more fluent than those who learned in a class. Hartshorne says that if you have the choice between starting language lessons earlier or learning through immersion later, “I’d learn in an immersion environment. Immersion has an enormous effect in our data—large even relative to fairly large differences in age.”


  In what could be the most surprising conclusion, the researchers say that even among native speakers it takes 30 years to fully master a language. The study showed a slight improvement—roughly one percentage point—in people who have been speaking English for 30 versus 20 years. The finding is consistent for both native and non-native speakers.


  Charles Yang, a computational linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, says this finding does not surprise him, given the sophisticated grammar rules that we do not pick up until our teenage years—how to change an adjective into a noun, for instance. “These are going to be very fine-grained details in the language,” he says. “You’re learning new words and you’re learning some morphological endings when you’re quite old, you know, in the teenage years.”

  来自宾夕法尼亚大学的计算语言学家Charles Yang则表示,18岁这个结论并不让他感到惊讶,因为人们在10岁以前通常不会学很复杂的语法规则。比如说把形容词转换为名词,像句法和形态这样的细节我们通常都是在有比较大之后才开始学习的。

  The enthusiasm for the study is not shared by everyone in the field. Elissa Newport, a professor of neurology at Georgetown University who specializes in language acquisition, remains a skeptic. “Most of the literature finds that learning the syntax and morphology of a language is done in about five years, not 30,” she says. “The claim that it takes 30 years to learn a language just doesn’t fit with any other findings.”

  当然也有研究人员对研究结果持异议,来自乔治敦大学的神经学专家Elissa Newport教授,结合她平日里对语言习得的研究,表示“30年才能完全掌握一门语言”这个结论明显和其他研究结果都不一致,有文献表明学习一门语言的句法和形态大约需要5年。

  Newport says that although the premise of the study—seeking critical periods for learning a language—is warranted, she thinks the surprising results emerged because the measure the researchers used is flawed. “Testing 600,000 people doesn’t give you a dependable, reliable outcome” if you’re not asking the right questions, she says. Instead of creating a new test, Newport says she would have preferred the researchers use an existing assessment of language proficiency to ensure they are really gauging how well people know English.


  Hartshorne is hoping to re-create the success of Which English? in a new online vocabulary test, but says he has struggled to create the same level of viral response because people are less willing to share their results if they perform poorly. “When you find out, ‘I’m in the 99th percentile of vocabulary,’ you’re like, ‘Okay, click, share.’ But you know 50 percent of people are below average. And they’re going to be less likely to want to share that.”

  Hartshorne希望在一个新的在线单词测试上重现“Which English?”的成功。但他同时也承认这将很难,因为当人们在测试中没有获得足够好的成绩得时候,就倾向于不把这个测试分享给别人。而不可避免的将有一半人分数在平均分以下,这将不利于测试的传播和进行。