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What IS the dirty little secret of multilingual people??

 
 
Monger
 
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 11:05 am
Sure, some people say learning languages just takes practice and persistence. No doubt. Obviously, however, there are a few who seem to be able to pick languages up even easier than your average teen idol picks up shrieking, pigeon-toed groupies; yet meanwhile poor souls like myself struggle with one foreign language for years (in my case Japanese) and never quite get a feeling for it.

So my question is: what's the deal? Is the ability to absorb a 2nd language merely a matter of IQ? Is it perhaps more similar in nature to artistic ability? Could it be a genetic thing? Hereditary? Are certain races known to just be more naturally endowed with linguistic aptitude? If so, which?

To make a point... I was in the tiny African country of Djibouti not too long ago (where this whole question started for me) and I was in for a bit of a shock... First, they've got 2 "national languages" (French and Arabic), then there's the languages of their 2 main tribes (Somali and Afar), neighboring Ethiopia and Eritrea's national languages (Amharic and Tigrinya, respectively), plus add some Oromo (another Ethiopian tribal language), Italian (due to past occupation of Eritrea), and a few even more obscure ones...and many Djiboutians speak them all! Even street kids who've never been to school. (By the way, none of those names I listed are mere dialects. They're all weird in their own very special ways.)

Any explanations for this Djiboutian phenomenon out there besides mine (which centers around an elaborate conspiracy involving infiltration by extraterrestrials with the sole, calculated purpose of making me look like an oaf)?

Another thing that plays into my obviously well-thought-out suspicions of Djibouti's sinister nature quite nicely is that in directly-neighboring Ethiopia (where I lived for a longer period), things are just the opposite. There, like me, the majority speak just the one language of the tribe they belong to. (And since Ethiopia's got over 200 tribes and over 80 languages to choose from.....well, think The Tower of Babel, but with lots more Kaleshnikovs to go around. Smile)

Enlightenment is needed to put my tiny mind at ease. Anyone have any insight on any of this?
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sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 11:13 am
There's a critical language learning period, wherein any number of languages can be learned, especially in an immersion environment. Little 'uns are geniuses that way... it's a universal thing. What varies is the exposure, not the genetic predisposition.
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Monger
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 11:22 am
True Sozobe, but what about Adults who move to a new country & speak its language fluently within 3 months? I know a few people like that, who think nothing of it.
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sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 11:24 am
Oh some individual people definitely have an aptitude for languages, just as some have an aptitude for math, or for cooking, or... But when you're speaking of a whole country, I'm much more inclined to say its about exposure from birth.
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Craven de Kere
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 11:25 am
Quote:
Is the ability to absorb a 2nd language merely a matter of IQ?


The traits that aid in a high IQ score might come into play but I don't think IQ is an issue.

Quote:
Are certain races known to just be more naturally endowed with linguistic aptitude? If so, which?


Yes, but not for hereditary reasons. Usually it has to do with their native tongue and its compatibility with other languages. English speakers have a harder time learning the romance languages than do speakers of one of said romance languages.

An example (generalized of course) of how certain nationailties fare better than do others is: Brazilians (Portuguese) understand SPanish without ever needing to study it. Spanish speakers have a bit more difficulty understanding Portuguese. My theroies have ranged from Spanish speakers needing to speak Portuguese less than do Portuguese speakers Spanish to geographical placement and speed of speech. But I suspect it really has to do with something about the languages that I haven't pinpointed.

As to the rest I suspect it's circumstantial. I mean: the Djiboutian kids you spoke of probably had greater exposure to the languages at an early age.

I suspect that in Japan you spoke mainly English and were not exposed to Japanese on a daily basis from an early age (age plays a big part).

I am making an educated guess based on my experience in JApan under similar conditions so feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

And lestly, genetics can play a part but I suspect it has a lot more to do with memory and will to learn. Children who can never learn the "times tables" can rattle off their favorite baseball players stats, down the the lenghth in milimeters of his eyelashes. They remember what they wish to remember. Maybe you are more interested in things other than language?

Guesswork of course.
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Craven de Kere
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 11:28 am
Monger wrote:
True Sozobe, but what about Adults who move to a new country & speak its language fluently within 3 months? I know a few people like that, who think nothing of it.


In my experience these adults are usually polyglots already, the exposure to other languages makes it easier to pick up the new one.

e.g. A person who has used Windows and Mac since childhood's hour will more readily pick up a third operating system.
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Merry Andrew
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 11:33 am
Sozobe's right. A child brought up in a multilingual environment will be automatically multilingual. Their little developing brains have absolutely no difficulty separating one language from another and using the appropriate one at the apropriate time. As to adults who pick up another language quickly, I would guess these adults are already at least biluingual when they pick up the third or fourth language.

Personal example: I am bilingual (English and Latvian), con speak those two languages interchangeably. I also find that -- perhaps as a result -- I pick up other language patters as needed quite rapidly. I know the rudiments of Spanish, French and German but am not fluent in any of these. However, set me down in a Central American village where the natives know no Ebnglish and I'll be able to communicate quite adequately, thank you. Not fluently, but adequately. IQ has nothing to do with it. Perhaps there's a genetic predisposition to learning languages, but I think that if there is, it's easily overcome simply by early immersion.

My mother spoke four languages fluently. English was the fourth, a language she didn't learn until she was well past 30. Yet, by the time of her retirement from active work, she was employed by a large insurance company in an office job where she had not only know spoken English but be able to handle the written stuff routinely as well.
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jespah
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 11:38 am
There's no doubt that learning French prepared me so thoroughly for learning Spanish two years afterwards that I just picked it up quickly. My grades in Spanish were always a lot better than my grades in French class.

I took Hebrew (religious instruction) and it was impossibly hard, but also incredibly poorly taught. But there is a real difference when you need to learn a different alphabet. Also, there are French and Spanish words sprinkled throughout English (croissant, patio, etc.) whereas there are few Hebrew words in English (the only one I can think of right now which isn't religious or geographic is sabra).

I also never picked up Yiddish although my grandparents spoke it and my folks sometimes speak it. My brother did more or less pick it up, but he studied German in school.
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fbaezer
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 11:46 am
Craven, your point about computers is quite good.
It also tells us a little about attitude.
My 8 year old was able to learn Power Point almost by herself, and she can hadle it better than her mother and myself (and her mother worked making presentations!).
Well, she's used to computers for all her life, had this "let me try" attitude, and hardly ever got desperate.

In languages, all things combine.

First rule: the older, the harder.

Second rule: If we have not been exposed to other languages (say, if we have only heard and read in our language), it's harder to learn a new one. We don't even know how the inflections are.
For example: I don't know Swedish, but I have seen enough Swedish movies (with subtitles) to have some grasp of the tones, and I can already read very few words.
On the other hand, I don't have the slightest idea of the tones of Malay.
When I was a child, I mimmicked the sounds of English while playing cowboy (it was an American cowboy); I picked those sounds from movies and songs.

Third rule: to feel at ease with the idea of learning a language. If you think: "oh, this is so hard!", then it IS hard. If you think: "I'll say it English, or use sign language, they'll understand anyway", then you're stuck to English and sign language.

Fourth rule: to not get desperate. Use short-cuts, don't try to master it from the start. enjoy every small step.

I'd add a fifth rule: to need it. That's really the main reason children in a foreign country are so good learners: they feel the need to communicate.
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Monger
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 11:52 am
Thanks, all for your insight with this. Some interesting stuff here. Very Happy
However, I don't necessarily agree completely on the one point that what I saw of Djiboutians' (& this may apply for people from perhaps other countries as well) knack for languages comes entirely from exposure. Djiboutians, from what I've read, as a very common trait have a natural poetic sense as well as as an uncanny sense of memory. Couldn't they also have some sort of national aptitude for learning languages?
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sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 11:59 am
Quote:
Couldn't they also have some sort of national aptitude for learning languages?


Sure they could -- fostered by their remarkably language-rich environment. Wink

Poetry is another one that has to do with what is valued and reinforced in the culture -- how come so many of the people who have the inherent ability to be excellent basketball players are born in America? (Do you see what I mean?)
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Craven de Kere
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 12:03 pm
fbaezer,

Thanks, I compare all memory related things to computers as I feel computers and memory are inherently comparable (if that made little sense it makes 2 of us).

Monger,

A national aptitute would take it into the realm of racial genetics, something that's hard to quantify. I mean, are Kenyans just born runners or does their lifestyle (in short, running long distances) make for such fantastic athletes? It's a tough one to call.

I usually opt for cultural and circumstantial reasons for thing. To use Japan as an example: ever notice how the older Japanese are shorter that the recent generations? I don't think that the genetics changed but the lifestyle (specifically: less rice paddy work = less hunchbacks and better diet = growth) did.

But there is no doubt that genetics can come into play when analyzing nationalities, but it's usually also circumstantial. For example: Americans tend to be more ambitious and agressive (in both good and bad ways) than do Brazilians who are generally passive and apathetic (in both good and bad ways) and my pet theory was that the colonization of both countries started the trend.

The people who peopled the US were tough families who fought for a new life, the people who peopled South America were merchants who wanted to rape the land.

I realize that I'm on thin ice here so let me add this caveat:

The agressive culture in America means that when i'm there I miss the warmth of other cultrures but I also credit it for making America a great nation. The passive and friendly attitudes of Brazilians is a beauty to live with, they are a fantastic people. But this might also mean that they are less motivated to change things that are notr right.

I am generalizing in a big way everyone, I mean no disrepect and hope that no offense was taken.
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Craven de Kere
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 12:08 pm
sozobe wrote:
how come so many of the people who have the inherent ability to be excellent basketball players are born in America? (Do you see what I mean?)


I am more than willing to agree that most differences between nations is circumstantial but on basketball there is something of interest to note.

Once again I'll venture onto thin ice. This is also genetic. Basketball is a sport where hieght is paramount and this is a genetic trait. Brazilians are a very atheltic people but do not do nearly as well in basketball for both cultural and genetic reasons. Cultural because they play soccer (football for those who just cringed) too well to care about many other sports and genetic because their athletes tend to be shorter.

Soccer is a sport that has less physical restrictions, short people can play just as well as tall people and they excell at this while not doing as well in basketball.
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sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 12:11 pm
You just went into the height thing though, with Japanese -- there are genetic predispositions, but things like diet and medical care have a lot to do with it.

And why aren't more Masai in the NBA, or giving the Americans a run for their money as part of an African team in worldwide championships?
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fbaezer
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 12:18 pm
On Kenya's runners and other digressions:

The other aspect to explain good Kenyan (and Ethiopian) long distance runners is altitude. If you live at high altitudes, you can do more with less oxygen.
Many long distance athletes train at high-altitude camps, to get their lungs used to less oxygen, when they go down to sea level, they perform better.

(Masais aren't tall enough for the NBA: you find taller people in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Angola: important slave trade center of centuries past)
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Craven de Kere
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 12:21 pm
Hmm, that is apparently a double standard in my logic (Japanese height isn't genetic but Brazilian is).

But I don't think either is purely genetic or purely circumstantial. Another thing of note is that the line is blurred, evolution dictates genetics and evolution is circumstantial.

About the NBA proof of the cultural argument is that the international field is inching closer to the US every year (don't the number of foreign players drafted in the first round of the NBA draft set records every year?).

So to clarify, I am not saying that the basketball thing is purely genetic, quite the contrary, it's largely circumstantial (I can't play basketball 2 blocks from my house like I could stateside). But since basketball has the height factor I think genetics are more of an issue with basketball than almost any other sport.

As far as I know there has only been one oriental NBA player but many baseball players and soccer players for both cultural and genetic reasons.
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Craven de Kere
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 12:23 pm
fbaezer wrote:
(Masais aren't tall enough for the NBA: you find taller people in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Angola: important slave trade center of centuries past)


I didn't want to go there because I've been skating all over thin ice but since this can's open:

Brazilian slaves were brought from less vertically endowed reigions and that was the basis of my genetic caveat.
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fbaezer
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 12:28 pm
I guess we better leave basketball alone.

Argentina beat the NBA's USA (not so) Dream Team in the World Basketball Championship. So did Yugoslavia and Spain.

So much for inherent national endowment.
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Craven de Kere
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 12:35 pm
The world is catching up! About time! I love basketball and would like to see more competition.

Monger, sorry that we digress. This topic can be split if you like.
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sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Nov, 2002 12:57 pm
Quote:
About the NBA proof of the cultural argument is that the international field is inching closer to the US every year (don't the number of foreign players drafted in the first round of the NBA draft set records every year?).


Just so.

To summarize what I am saying in terms of Monger's questions:

Let's say we did a (barbaric) study of a group of 10 sets of identical twins, half from American parents, half from Djiboutian parents. We make sure that all of the pregnant mothers get identical health care and nutrition (though that still wouldn't account for their health/ nutrition up to that point), and then separate the twins immediately after birth. The babies are then sent to be raised in either Djiboutian or American homes, randomly selected except that no set of twins is in the same country.

I think that the group of 10 babies raised in Djibouti would have more excellent poets than their genetically identical American counterparts, and the group of 10 babies raised in America would have more excellent basketball players than their genetically identical Djiboutian counterparts.

This is assuming that Djiboutians don't love basketball, which I don't know enough to assume... a skill more specifically valued in America may be better inserted into this study. (We think poets are nice, but I don't think many kids fantasize about being the next poet laureate.)
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