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語言學習最佳年齡的幾種判斷依據

What is the best age to learn a language?
語言學習最佳年齡的幾種判斷依據

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.

一個忙碌的秋日清晨,在倫敦北部一家叫西班牙苗圃(Spanish Nursery)的雙語托兒學校,家長們正幫孩童們脫下單車頭盔和夾克。老師們輕快說著西班牙語問候孩子們,擁抱著歡迎他們。操場上,一個小女孩要求把她的頭發綁成“coleta”(西班牙語的辮子),然后滾著球用英語大叫一聲“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.

“在這個年齡段,孩子們并不是在學習一門語言——他們是在習得語言,”學校校長蘭普賽德(Carmen Rampersad)說道。圍繞在她身邊的小家伙們毫不費力地說著各種語言,這句話似乎道出了原因。對當中很多孩子來說,西班牙語是他們的第三語言,甚至是第四語言。他們的母語包括克羅地亞語、希伯來語、韓語和德語。

幼兒擅于學習當地口音,但是不同生命階段有不同的語言學習優勢。

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.

對比那些在語言學習班上奮斗的成年人,我們很容易下結論——學語言最好還是從年輕時開始。

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,我們和語言的關系是如何在一生中不斷發展,科學提供了一個更復雜的觀點。這對很多起步晚的初學者是很大的鼓勵。

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.

廣義上來說,不同生命階段在語言學習上有不同的優勢。嬰兒時期,耳朵更為敏感,能分辨不同聲音;兒童則能以驚人的速度掌握母語口音。到了成年,因為擁有更持久的專注力和讀寫等關鍵技能,我們能夠不斷擴充詞匯量,甚至母語詞匯量。

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.

除了年齡增長,其他因素也會影響我們掌握語言的數量和效果,例如社交環境、教學方法,甚至愛情和友情。

“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.

愛丁堡大學發展語言學教授兼雙語教育事務中心主任索拉斯(Antonella Sorace)指出,“并非所有事情都隨著年齡的增長而走下坡路。”

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.”

她舉了一個“外顯學習”的例子,即在教室里學習語言,老師在旁解釋規則。索拉斯說,“幼兒非常不擅長顯性學習,因為他們缺乏認知控制,注意力和記憶力也不足。成年人在這些方面要好得多,所以這是隨著年齡增長而改善的。”

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.

舉例來說,以色列的研究人員在一項研究中發現,成人更擅長掌握人為制定的規則,并在實驗環境下將其應用到新詞中??茖W家比較了三個不同的群體:8歲、12歲和青年人。成年人的得分高于兩個年輕組別,而12歲的孩子也比年齡較小的孩子做得好。

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.

有一項長期研究也得出一致結論,該研究針對2000名加泰羅尼亞-西班牙雙語人士的英語學習情況:年長的初學者比年輕的初學者能更快掌握新語言。

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.

以色列的研究人員表示,年長的參與者能受益于在成長中獲得的技能,例如更高級的解決問題的策略和更豐富的語言經驗。換句話說,年級較大的學習者往往對自身和世界有更多了解,并且可以利用這些知識來處理新的信息。

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.

兒童擅長的是隱性學習——通過聆聽并模仿母語人士的講話來學習。這種學習方式需要長時間和母語人士在一起。2016年,雙語教育事務中心為蘇格蘭政府編寫了一份關于小學普通話課程的內部報告。他們發現,對五歲大的孩子來說,每周教學一小時并不會帶來實質改變。但如果有母語人士在場,即使只有半個小時,也能幫助孩子們掌握諸如音調這種對成年人來說非常困難的普通話基礎元素。

Easy acquisition

易于習得


We all start out as natural linguists.

我們都是天生的語言學家。

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.

嬰兒時期,我們可以聽到構成世界所有語言的600個輔音和200個元音。在一歲之內,大腦開始專注于接收我們最常聽到的聲音。嬰兒開始就已經用母語牙牙學語。連新生兒都會模仿他們在子宮中聽到的語言,帶著口音哭泣。這種專門化的語言學習過程意味著放棄我們不需要的技能。日本嬰兒可以輕而易舉地區分“l”和“r”這兩個音。而這對于日本成年人來說卻比較困難。

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.

索拉斯說,毫無疑問的,幼年階段對于母語的習得非常關鍵。一些對遺棄或孤立兒童的研究表明,如果我們不能早點學習人類說話,之后就很難再彌補這方面的缺陷。

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

但令人驚訝的是,這種分離在外語學習中是不受影響的。

“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”.

約克大學心理語言學家特倫基奇(Danijela Trenkic)說,“要理解的重要一點是,年齡伴隨著許多其他事物一起變化。”兒童與成人的生活完全不同。所以特倫基奇說,當比較兒童和成人的語言技能時,“我們并不是在比較同類事物。”

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.

她舉了一個例子,對于一個搬去新國家的家庭來說,通常孩子們學習語言的速度會比父母更快。但可能是因為他們經常在學校聽到這種語言,而父母可能只是獨自工作。孩子們也可能感受到更大的緊迫感,因為他們要在社會上生存——交朋友、被接納和融入圈子,掌握語言是至關重要的。而父母更有可能與懂他們的人交往,例如移民同胞們。

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

特倫基奇說,“在我看來,建立情感聯結能讓你更好地學習語言。”

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.

成年人當然也可以建立這種情感聯結,而不僅僅是通過和母語人士發展愛情或友誼。2013年,一項針對初學意大利語課程的英國成年人的研究發現,和其他同學和老師建立聯系有助于他們的學習。

“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,那就更有可能繼續使用一門語言,而且會堅持下去,"特倫基奇說,"這就是關鍵。你需要花費數年學習一門語言。除非有社交動機,否則很難堅持。”

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.

今年早些時候,麻省理工學院的一項研究搜集了近67萬人的線上問卷,結果表明,想要達到母語級別的英語語法知識,最好從十歲左右就開始學習,因為這種能力之后就開始衰退。然而,該研究還表示,時間久了,我們會說得越來越好,包括母語。例如,我們到30歲左右才能完全掌握母語的語法。這和之前另一個線上研究都表明,人到中年以前,即使母語人士也基本能每天學一個母語新詞。

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.

特倫基奇指出,麻省理工學院的研究分析了一些非常具體的情況——在語法準確性方面達到母語人士的能力。這對一般語言學生來說,可能并非總是相關。

“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.

她說,“人們有時會問,學外語的最大好處是什么?我能多掙些錢嗎?我能變聰明嗎?我能更健康嗎?其實,掌握外語的最大好處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.”

特倫基奇本人最初來自塞爾維亞。在她20多歲搬到英國后,才能流利地說英語。她說自己還會犯語法錯誤,尤其是感到疲倦或緊張的時候。她后來在一封電子郵件中寫到,“但盡管如此,我可以用英語做很多驚人的事,這是最關鍵的。我可以欣賞最偉大的文學作品,我能寫出達到發表水準的意義豐富、條理清晰的文章。”

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

事實上,麻省理工的測試把她歸類為英語母語人士

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.

在那間西班牙苗圃里,老師們用西班牙語唱著“生日快樂”,圖書角里擺著希伯來文的《咕嚕?!罚═he Gruffalo),而校長自己卻成了一個起步晚的語言學習者。蘭普賽德在羅馬尼亞長大,她在20歲時搬到國外,之后才掌握了英語。她的孩子則是在托兒所學習的西班牙語。

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.

也許最具冒險精神的語言學家是她的丈夫。他來自特立尼達島,而蘭普賽德的家庭住在靠近摩爾多瓦的邊境。他從蘭普賽德的家庭學習羅馬尼亞語。

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

蘭普賽德說,“他的羅馬尼亞語非常棒。帶點摩爾多瓦口音,非常搞笑。”
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