For future generations of translators, the youthful period of linguistic “plasticity” may be crucial. Apparently, the old adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is somewhat true… at least, if you replace “dog” with “human” and “tricks” with “grammar.” “The brain is innately designed to be open to experience, but only during a certain period,” writes author Matt Ridley. This raises any number of questions, of course, and my first one was directed at my physician-scientist father, and if he knew of any studies that had used GABA supplements in second-language acquisition. He did not, and said “It is definitely worth exploring, but fine-tuning it would be delicate and hard to verify with objective testing.” Myself, I had already envisioned a double-blind secluded language-acquisition utopia complete with identical twins in polyester track suits and those rows of “vitamins” in paper cups, but this was probably my flare for literature more than my flare for real-world science.
The language industry, of course, is full of individuals who have mastered (or nearly mastered) second languages in adulthood, grammar and all. I asked my dad why, in his opinion, if this article were true, I had been able to learn French grammar beginning at age 19 and a half. My father pointed out that “the grammatical platform you learned as a toddler was not far removed from Romantic constructions and concepts, and served as a launch point. And a healthy childhood, I suspect, keeps some windows partly open.” Fair enough. Also, whether this is relevant or not, like many a nerd, I was slow to reach physical adulthood. Even at 19 and a half, I suspect it was easier to absorb new linguistic constructions than it would be now, at 30. In fact, when, in grad school, I tried learning a third language, I did find it more difficult, in spite of the fact that I was studying linguistics.
In any case, questions about why adult learners of second (or third) languages usually hit a grammatical wall are not new. They’ve been puzzling pedagogues for awhile now.
Whether you’re a multilingual child prodigy or one of those adults who can master language late in life, your knowledge is crucial to the way the world functions. Happy International Translation Day!