Language Ideologies in the Wild: The Middle Aged Brain

It’s time for another language ideologies in the wild post, this time focusing on middle-aged life.  Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, interweaves stories and research focused on life in middle age.  As with the other books discussed in this series, the book overall is interesting, so this is not meant to be a post bashing this book.  However, there is a section on language learning in middle age that could use more awareness of language ideologies, specifically the ways in which they shape how Hagerty researched and wrote about this topic.  

The section on language learning in middle age opens with the following quote, focused on the idea of language learning as “brain training”:

Fear of dementia, it turns out, sells a lot of foreign-language training courses. When fifty-something adults began signing up for Rosetta Stone’s language courses in surprising numbers, the company queries its customers about why. People mentioned travel and business, but as often as not, they spoke of a dull dread: They looked at the future and saw dementia. They thought that learning Turkish could save their brains. Company officials heard this so often, in fact, that they bought a brain-training company, Fit Brains, to attract more baby boomers to their programs and see how they might meld neuroscience with language. 

The perception of language as a decontextualized object appears repeatedly in this section, primarily in how Hagerty and her interviewees conceive of language: as memorizing vocabulary, understanding grammatical concepts, and having “native” pronunciation.  Starting with vocabulary, the discussion focusing on the difficulties of memorizing vocabulary as we age.  The author explains:

In midlife, you are slower at memorizing new foreign words, and much slower at retrieving them when you need to say something. This parallels the middle-aged brain’s retrieval problem with proper names: Just as there is no semantic reason Angelina Jolie should be called Angelina Jolie–which creates a big problem for the brain–there is no obvious reason that a mouse should be called souris in French. 

On the one hand, research does support the fact that memorizing random words is harder in middle age.  On the other, this assumes that language learning consists of memorizing random words, without the helpful contextualization of, say, a mouse running across your kitchen counter.  So yes, memorizing a list of words may be harder, but is this really language learning?

In a cruel act of betrayal, the middle-aged brain turns its singular advantage–our experience–against us. “Interference” occurs whenever we accumulate expertise in one area. It explains why changing from a PC to a Mac makes people homicidal: You have to learn a new operating and key-command system, something your brain and fingers resist. 

“If you have a lot of expertise in one language and then you’re trying to learn a new one, you have to say, ‘No, two is not dos anymore, it’s zwei,’” says Sherry Willis at the University of Washington. “Interference actually increases from midlife through old age because your store of knowledge–the number of file drawers you have to go through to get the relevant information and refile the information–increases with age.’”

Besides memorizing vocabulary, language learning is also represented as understanding grammatical concepts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this surfaces in an interview with a product developer at Rosetta Stone:  

And yet even at midlife, “the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn more,” insists Lisa Frumkes, who heads the language-learning-product group at Rosetta Stone. Adults have an edge over young children because they not only understand the structure of language but also understand concepts. 

“So when you’re somebody like me who likes to collect languages–I’m about to start on my twelfth language–you have a lot more concepts,” she notes.  “You didn’t know when you first started studying Chinese, for example, that every time you talk about ‘sticks’, you have to use a special word like ‘chopstick’ or ‘baton.’ But once you come across that kind of concept again in another language, like Indonesian, you think, Well heck, I already know what this is.  I can relate it to something.”

Leaving aside the fact that this itself contradicts the “interference” discussed earlier, it again makes sense that the more times you encounter grammatical concepts, the easier it is to understand them.  Yet is “collecting” grammatical concepts what language learning is? While again, most likely not the intention of the interviewee, the use of the word “collect” here makes me cringe, reminding me of the colonial linguists whose job was to collect word lists and analyze grammatical structures in order to associate languages and ethnic groups, with the ultimate goal of demonstrating their inferiority to Europeans. 

Next, we come to language learning as pronunciation, with the assumed goal “native” pronunciation: 

True, the critical-period theory–that learning a new language is easier for children than for adults–is well established. But it is not the only relevant fact. A six-year-old American can acquire a native French accent; the average thirty-year-old almost certainly cannot. A study of more than two million people found that the older you are, the harder it is to learn a new language: It is harder at fifty than at forty, harder at thirty than at twenty. But no on has ever identified an age when a healthy person cannot add Chinese to his repertoire, if he is willing to put in the time. 

Moving on, we see the influence of language ideologies in the sources consulted for this section, which are all from psychology or neuroscience journals.  This leads to statements like the following:

In one of the only studies on adults and bilingualism, British researchers found that people who learned a second language as adults raised their IQ levels and slowed the aging of their brains. Other researchers speculate that the cognitive tasks involved, such as working memory, sound discrimination, and task switching, are precisely the brain areas linked to declines in old age. The earlier you start, the easier it is, but no matter when you tackle the  new language, you will create new pathways and sense the difference.

If language learning is viewed as a purely cognitive act, the purview of psychology and neuroscience, then perhaps this is “one of the only studies on adults and bilingualism”.  However, this limited view leaves out entire fields with a more social focus, most notably research focused on adult immigrants learning languages, including in a rather large and prominent field often called Teaching English Speakers Other Languages (TESOL).  Are these adults left out because they are often socially marginalized? Because they aren’t pursuing language learning as fun brain training? Wouldn’t their experiences be highly relevant to understanding middle aged language learning?

Finally, it’s notable that while the research and orientation of this section focus on language learning as a decontextualized object, the real life story of a middle-aged woman learning a language is much more socially oriented.  Hagerty profiles a woman named Jane Gantz, who started learning Spanish at 59.  She reports that now:

The language has seeped into every corner of her life: She watches Spanish television, she meets with Spanish-speaking friends five times a week, she works with a tutor. She returns to Costa Rica for six weeks every winter. 

Gantz herself describes learning Spanish as “life-changing”, primarily for the relationships it has brought her:

Spanish has changed my life. I think about this almost every day because of the connections that I have made, not only in Costa Rica, but people I meet at my school, Latinos in my community who are now my friends, the conversation groups I go to.

In other parts of this book, there is an emphasis on the importance of relationships in middle age, yet the association of “language learning” with cognitive brain training puts this story in the latter, rather than the former.  

Once more, the purpose of this post isn’t to critique this particular book so much as to reveal the impact of unexamined language ideologies.  The influence of the ideology of standardization, including the decontextualization of language from social life to cast it as “brain training” result in overlooking relevant research, ignoring the role of relationships in life-changing language learning, and defining the outcomes of language learning in limited ways (pronunciation, memorizing vocabulary, understanding grammatical concepts).  Not only do decontextualized language ideologies reproduce social inequities, their limited understanding of language turns away many potential language learners, including Hagerty herself who reports that she has “no desire to put myself through the misery of learning a foreign language.” As she is a former NPR reporter who describes herself elsewhere in the book as an extrovert who loves chatting with new people, I can only imagine that this “misery” is a result of perceiving language learning as a cognitive training exercise, rather than an opportunity to interact with new people and media.  What would happen if she was aware of language ideologies, and chose new ones to inform her perspective on middle-aged language learning?





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