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quarkquarkquark's avatar

How do those tiny little language prodigies learn languages?

Asked by quarkquarkquark (1690points) May 11th, 2009

I see 8-year-olds on TV who speak ten languages, thirty-year-olds who speak fifty, etc… These younger ones have never taken classes or listened to tapes, the older ones don’t have the time to be fully immersed in fifty cultures. How are language savants exposed to these languages that they become so fluent?

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12 Answers

Jiminez's avatar

Superior brains. It’s not fair.

Zaku's avatar

Perhaps the answer lies in what the majority of people do, that has them unable to easily learn to speak other languages fluently after their first? Almost all humans are very good at learning a language, any language, as a child, but then some some things typically happen – perhaps limiting ideas get installed – that close off access to that ability.

Humans are that way with many abilities – we tend to be more limited by our own beliefs and thought structures than we are by our actual potential, or what’s really possible in the world, so that we don’t apply our abilities.

quarkquarkquark's avatar

I mean this in a very literal sense… how the hell do they get exposed to enough of eight languages to become fluent in all of them?

squirbel's avatar

How do you know they haven’t listened to instructional materials or taken classes? Where is the proof?

quarkquarkquark's avatar

haha I have no proof. Sometimes it is stated but I can think of no particular examples. Still, an eight-year-old has no time for classes in a dozen languages.

_bob's avatar

They eat their vegetables.

gailcalled's avatar

People, whether tiny or not, who live in the Western Europe countries learn the languages of their neighbors perforce. The Swiss speak French, German, Italian and the dialects.

The people in the low countries speak English. Flemish and Dutch are the same. Basques speak Basque and Spanish; Bretons speak Breton and French. Catalans speak Catalan and French. Italians speak Italian and usually the local dialect – Venetian, Neapolitan, Roman, Milanese, etc.

Many children are raised in bilingual households; but link me to an eight-year old who speaks eight languages fluently.

My maternal grandfather spoke Ukrainian (his home), Russian, (his neighbors), Polish (his other neighbors) German (his school), and read Hebrew (his religious school). He then learned English when he immigrated.

quarkquarkquark's avatar

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James_Sidis

there’s others on wikipedia; I picked this one because there’s plenty of outside documentation as well.

Zaku's avatar

Children with multi-lingual parents can learn all of the available languages at the same time unless the parents limit the learning environment (which they generally do, perhaps because they are adults and limited by their cultural and adultish ideas).

I notice that Sidis had brilliant multi-lingual parents committed to glorifying learning, so I assume they had both access to many languages and no blocks to the possibility of their child learning many languages right away.

Learning languages by adult study methods is a brute force approach and much less effective than whatever children do to learn language, which doesn’t require the same things.

dynamicduo's avatar

Children absorb languages like a sponge. It’s a part of their programming. Most times it’s simply a result of being around other people while they speak the language in question. Usually this is accomplished via traveling, being a part of a multicultural household, etc.

This happened when I was in Japan. I was living with a friend and her family. Her son was young at the time. The mom spoke English and French, the dad spoke Japanese and French, and the son was brought up speaking French to his mom and Japanese to his dad. While I was there I used all three languages to communicate with all three of them, but as far as we knew it the son didn’t have a strong grasp on English and didn’t use it voluntarily…. until we were traveling to the airport in the car, where he started saying in English how much he would miss me when I was gone! Both me and his mom were shocked to say the least.

Vincentt's avatar

I believe it also had to do with brain structure, how different parts of the brain are used. Some have developed more capacity for learning languages and will be worse at some other stuff. I suppose if you’re such a person you’ll also go and look for different languages faster so you’ll get in touch with more of them.

You might also want to read The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch (I don’t know whether the English translation is as good as the original Dutch version, but at least it contains a character that has a remarkable capability of learning new languages).

DarkScribe's avatar

When my eldest daughter started school my wife and I dropped her off at the local “Our Lady of the xxx” primary school and went home. I few hours later, we got a call from the mother superior asking in an exasperated tone – “Why didn’t you mention that your daughter does not speak English”?

We were stunned, then realised that as several languages were spoken in the home as well as English, and that as the adults had a habit of selecting the best word in whatever language had the most precise meaning – she was doing it too. We had not noticed. She understood everything, but spoke a mix of French, Russian, German and English. It only took her a few weeks to sort things out. She will still watch most foreign films without sub-titles.

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