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语言学习最佳年龄的几种判断依据

更新时间:2018/12/6 21:33:42 来源:纽约时报中文网 作者:佚名

What is the best age to learn a language?
语言学习最佳年龄的几种判断依据

It’s a busy autumn morning at the Spanish Nursery, a bilingual nursery school in north London. Parents help their toddlers out of cycling helmets and jackets. Teachers greet the children with a cuddle and a chirpy “Buenos dias!”. In the playground, a little girl asks for her hair to be bunched up into a “coleta” (Spanish for ‘pigtail’), then rolls a ball and shouts “Catch!” in English.

一个忙碌的秋日清晨,在伦敦北部一家叫西班牙苗圃(Spanish Nursery)的双语托儿学校,家长们正帮孩童们脱下单车头盔和夹克。老师们轻快说着西班牙语问候孩子们,拥抱着欢迎他们。操场上,一个小女孩要求把她的头发绑成“coleta”(西班牙语的辫子),然后滚着球用英语大叫一声“接住”。

“At this age, children don’t learn a language – they acquire it,” says the school’s director Carmen Rampersad. It seems to sum up the enviable effortlessness of the little polyglots around her. For many of the children, Spanish is a third or even fourth language. Mother tongues include Croatian, Hebrew, Korean and Dutch.

“在这个年龄段,孩子们并不是在学习一门语言——他们是在习得语言,”学校校长兰普赛德(Carmen Rampersad)说道。围绕在她身边的小家伙们毫不费力地说着各种语言,这句话似乎道出了原因。对当中很多孩子来说,西班牙语是他们的第三语言,甚至是第四语言。他们的母语包括克罗地亚语、希伯来语、韩语和德语。

Compare this to the struggle of the average adult in a language class, and it would be easy to conclude that it’s best to start young.

对比那些在语言学习班上奋斗的成年人,我们很容易下结论——学语言最好还是从年轻时开始。

But science offers a much more complex view of how our relationship with languages evolves over a lifetime – and there is much to encourage late beginners.

但是,我们和语言的关系是如何在一生中不断发展,科学提供了一个更复杂的观点。这对很多起步晚的初学者是很大的鼓励。

Broadly speaking, different life stages give us different advantages in language learning. As babies, we have a better ear for different sounds; as toddlers, we can pick up native accents with astonishing speed. As adults, we have longer attention spans and crucial skills like literacy that allow us to continually expand our vocabulary, even in our own language.

广义上来说,不同生命阶段在语言学习上有不同的优势。婴儿时期,耳朵更为敏感,能分辨不同声音;儿童则能以惊人的速度掌握母语口音。到了成年,因为拥有更持久的专注力和读写等关键技能,我们能够不断扩充词汇量,甚至母语词汇量。

And a wealth of factors beyond ageing – like social circumstances, teaching methods, and even love and friendship – can affect how many languages we speak and how well.

除了年龄增长,其他因素也会影响我们掌握语言的数量和效果,例如社交环境、教学方法,甚至爱情和友情。

“Not everything goes downhill with age,” says Antonella Sorace, a professor of developmental linguistics and director of the Bilingualism Matters Centre at the University of Edinburgh.

爱丁堡大学发展语言学教授兼双语教育事务中心主任索拉斯(Antonella Sorace)指出,“并非所有事情都随着年龄的增长而走下坡路。”

She gives the example of what is known as ‘explicit learning’: studying a language in a classroom with a teacher explaining the rules. “Young children are very bad at explicit learning, because they don’t have the cognitive control and the attention and memory capabilities,” Sorace says. “Adults are much better at that. So that can be something that improves with age.”

她举了一个“外显学习”的例子,即在教室里学习语言,老师在旁解释规则。索拉斯说,“幼儿非常不擅长显性学习,因为他们缺乏认知控制,注意力和记忆力也不足。成年人在这些方面要好得多,所以这是随着年龄增长而改善的。”

A study by researchers in Israel found, for example, that adults were better at grasping an artificial language rule and applying it to new words in a lab setting. The scientists compared three separate groups: 8-year-olds, 12-year-olds, and young adults. The adults scored higher than both younger groups, and the 12-year-olds also did better than the younger children.

举例来说,以色列的研究人员在一项研究中发现,成人更擅长掌握人为制定的规则,并在实验环境下将其应用到新词中。科学家比较了三个不同的群体:8岁、12岁和青年人。成年人的得分高于两个年轻组别,而12岁的孩子也比年龄较小的孩子做得好。

This chimed with the results of a long-term study of almost 2,000 Catalan-Spanish bilingual learners of English: the late starters acquired the new language faster than the younger starters.

有一项长期研究也得出一致结论,该研究针对2000名加泰罗尼亚-西班牙双语人士的英语学习情况:年长的初学者比年轻的初学者能更快掌握新语言。

The researchers in Israel suggested that their older participants may have benefited from skills that come with maturity – like more advanced problem-solving strategies – and greater linguistic experience. In other words, older learners tend to already know quite a lot about themselves and the world and can use this knowledge to process new information.

以色列的研究人员表示,年长的参与者能受益于在成长中获得的技能,例如更高级的解决问题的策略和更丰富的语言经验。换句话说,年级较大的学习者往往对自身和世界有更多了解,并且可以利用这些知识来处理新的信息。

What young children excel at is learning implicitly: listening to native speakers and imitating them. But this type of learning requires a lot of time with native speakers. In 2016, the Bilingualism Matters Centre prepared an internal report on Mandarin lessons in primary schools for the Scottish government. They found that one hour a week of teaching did not make a meaningful difference to five-year-olds. But even just one additional half-hour, and the presence of a native speaker, helped the children grasp elements of Mandarin that are harder for adults, such as the tones.

儿童擅长的是隐性学习——通过聆听并模仿母语人士的讲话来学习。这种学习方式需要长时间和母语人士在一起。2016年,双语教育事务中心为苏格兰政府编写了一份关于小学普通话课程的内部报告。他们发现,对五岁大的孩子来说,每周教学一小时并不会带来实质改变。但如果有母语人士在场,即使只有半个小时,也能帮助孩子们掌握诸如音调这种对成年人来说非常困难的普通话基础元素。

Easy acquisition

易于习得

We all start out as natural linguists.

我们都是天生的语言学家。

As babies, we can hear all of the 600 consonants and 200 vowels that make up the world’s languages. Within our first year, our brains begin to specialise, tuning into the sounds we hear most frequently. Infants already babble in their mother tongue. Even newborns cry with an accent, imitating the speech they heard while in the womb. This specialisation also means shedding the skills we do not need. Japanese babies can easily distinguish between ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds. Japanese adults tend to find this more difficult.

婴儿时期,我们可以听到构成世界所有语言的600个辅音和200个元音。在一岁之内,大脑开始专注于接收我们最常听到的声音。婴儿开始就已经用母语牙牙学语。连新生儿都会模仿他们在子宫中听到的语言,带着口音哭泣。这种专门化的语言学习过程意味着放弃我们不需要的技能。日本婴儿可以轻而易举地区分“l”和“r”这两个音。而这对于日本成年人来说却比较困难。

There is no question, Sorace says, that the early years are crucial for acquiring our own language. Studies of abandoned or isolated children have shown that if we do not learn human speech early on, we cannot easily make up for this later.

索拉斯说,毫无疑问的,幼年阶段对于母语的习得非常关键。一些对遗弃或孤立儿童的研究表明,如果我们不能早点学习人类说话,之后就很难再弥补这方面的缺陷。

But here is the surprise: that cut-off is not the same for foreign language learning.

但令人惊讶的是,这种分离在外语学习中是不受影响的。

“The important thing to understand is that age co-varies with many other things,” says Danijela Trenkic, a psycholinguist at the University of York. Children’s lives are completely different from those of adults. So when we compare the language skills of children and adults, Trenkic says, “we’re not comparing like with like”.

约克大学心理语言学家特伦基奇(Danijela Trenkic)说,“要理解的重要一点是,年龄伴随着许多其他事物一起变化。”儿童与成人的生活完全不同。所以特伦基奇说,当比较儿童和成人的语言技能时,“我们并不是在比较同类事物。”

She gives the example of a family moving to a new country. Typically, children will learn the language much faster than their parents. But that may be because they hear it constantly at school, while their parents might be working alone. The children may also feel a greater sense of urgency since mastering the language is crucial to their social survival: making friends, being accepted, fitting in. Their parents, on the other hand, are more likely to be able to socialise with people who understand them, such as fellow immigrants.

她举了一个例子,对于一个搬去新国家的家庭来说,通常孩子们学习语言的速度会比父母更快。但可能是因为他们经常在学校听到这种语言,而父母可能只是独自工作。孩子们也可能感受到更大的紧迫感,因为他们要在社会上生存——交朋友、被接纳和融入圈子,掌握语言是至关重要的。而父母更有可能与懂他们的人交往,例如移民同胞们。

“Creating the emotional bond is what makes you better at language learning, in my view,” says Trenkic.

特伦基奇说,“在我看来,建立情感联结能让你更好地学习语言。”

Adults can of course also create that emotional bond, and not just through love or friendship with a native speaker. A 2013 study of British adults in an Italian beginners’ course found that those who stuck with it were helped by bonding with the other students and the teacher.

成年人当然也可以建立这种情感联结,而不仅仅是通过和母语人士发展爱情或友谊。2013年,一项针对初学意大利语课程的英国成年人的研究发现,和其他同学和老师建立联系有助于他们的学习。

“If you find like-minded people, that makes it more likely that you’ll push on with a language, and that you’ll persevere,” Trenkic says. “And that really is the key. You need to spend years learning it. Unless there’s a social motivation for it, it’s really difficult to sustain.”

“如果你找到志同道合的人,那就更有可能继续使用一门语言,而且会坚持下去,"特伦基奇说,"这就是关键。你需要花费数年学习一门语言。除非有社交动机,否则很难坚持。”

Earlier this year, a study at MIT based on an online quiz of nearly 670,000 people found that to achieve native-like knowledge of English grammar, it is best to start by about 10 years old, after which that ability declines. However, the study also showed that we can keep getting better at languages, including our own, over time. For example, we only fully master the grammar of our own language by about 30. This adds to a previous, separate online study that shows even native speakers learn almost one new word a day in their own language until middle age.

今年早些时候,麻省理工学院的一项研究搜集了近67万人的线上问卷,结果表明,想要达到母语级别的英语语法知识,最好从十岁左右就开始学习,因为这种能力之后就开始衰退。然而,该研究还表示,时间久了,我们会说得越来越好,包括母语。例如,我们到30岁左右才能完全掌握母语的语法。这和之前另一个线上研究都表明,人到中年以前,即使母语人士也基本能每天学一个母语新词。

Trenkic points out that the MIT study analysed something extremely specific – the ability to pass for a native speaker in terms of grammatical accuracy. To the average language student, that may not be all that relevant.

特伦基奇指出,麻省理工学院的研究分析了一些非常具体的情况——在语法准确性方面达到母语人士的能力。这对一般语言学生来说,可能并非总是相关。

“People sometimes ask, what is the biggest advantage of foreign languages? Will I earn more money? Will I be cleverer? Will I stay healthier? But actually, the biggest advantage of knowing foreign languages is being able to communicate with more people,” she says.

她说,“人们有时会问,学外语的最大好处是什么?我能多挣些钱吗?我能变聪明吗?我能更健康吗?其实,掌握外语的最大好处是能和更多的人交流。”

Trenkic herself is originally from Serbia. She only became fluent in English in her twenties, after she moved to the UK. She says she still makes grammatical mistakes, especially when she is tired or stressed. “Yet, despite all that – and this is crucial – I can do amazing things in English,” she later writes in an email. “I can enjoy the greatest literary works, I can produce meaningful and coherent texts of publishable quality.”

特伦基奇本人最初来自塞尔维亚。在她20多岁搬到英国后,才能流利地说英语。她说自己还会犯语法错误,尤其是感到疲倦或紧张的时候。她后来在一封电子邮件中写到,“但尽管如此,我可以用英语做很多惊人的事,这是最关键的。我可以欣赏最伟大的文学作品,我能写出达到发表水准的意义丰富、条理清晰的文章。”

In fact, the MIT quiz classified her as a native English speaker.

事实上,麻省理工的测试把她归类为英语母语人士。

At the Spanish Nursery, where the teachers are singing ‘Cumpleanos feliz’ and the book corner stocks The Gruffalo in Hebrew, the director herself turns out to be a late starter. Carmen Rampersad grew up in Romania and only really mastered English when she moved abroad in her twenties. Her children absorbed Spanish at nursery.

在那间西班牙苗圃里,老师们用西班牙语唱着“生日快乐”,图书角里摆着希伯来文的《咕噜牛》(The Gruffalo),而校长自己却成了一个起步晚的语言学习者。兰普赛德在罗马尼亚长大,她在20岁时搬到国外,之后才掌握了英语。她的孩子则是在托儿所学习的西班牙语。

But perhaps the most adventurous linguist is her husband. Originally from Trinidad, he learned Romanian from her family, who live close to the border with Moldova.

也许最具冒险精神的语言学家是她的丈夫。他来自特立尼达岛,而兰普赛德的家庭住在靠近摩尔多瓦的边境。他从兰普赛德的家庭学习罗马尼亚语。

“His Romanian is excellent,” she says. “He speaks it with a Moldavian accent. It’s hilarious.”

兰普赛德说,“他的罗马尼亚语非常棒。带点摩尔多瓦口音,非常搞笑。”

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