We All Used to Be Geniuses – Facts So Romantic


ThomasLife via Flickr

To adults learning a second language, it hardly seems fair: As they stumble their way through conjugation drills, fret over grammar textbooks, and fill in worksheets on constructing subordinate clauses, their children sop up the language while finger painting at preschool. Within months, correct syntax pours itself out of the tykes’ mouths, involving no apparent mental exertion on their part.

In her 2010 TED talk, researcher Patricia Kuhl described children as language-learning “geniuses.” In contrast, people who start learning a language in adulthood rarely reach the summit of native-like proficiency, even after decades of strenuous effort. An enduring scientific mystery is why adults, with their superior cognitive powers, ultimately do less well than children at language learning.

Part of the answer lies with the curse of prior knowledge: Once neural commitments are made to the patterns of a first language, these interfere with the ability to learn a new set of structures, especially if they’re very different from the first. But another part of the story may be that adults do badly not in spite of, but because of, their greater intellectual ability.

Evidence is mounting for the existence of two very different learning systems,…
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