Between the area where Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic intersect, there is an area called “Lausitz” (in German) which is also the home of the Sorbian / Wendish peoples, who speak not one but two Slavic minority languages in Germany (“Upper Sorbian” and “Lower Sorbian”).
(For those curious: the name is “Łužica” in Upper Sorbian and “Łužyca” in Lower Sorbian)
In one of my first exposures to this minority culture, there was a montage (on one of the Sorbian cultural websites or so) of various Sorbian people saying in the Sorbian Languages, German that it is “never too late”.
This is the attitude that any learner requires and should attain.
By contrast, many of my American friends (including members of my own family) believe that the only true way to have gotten good at a language was merely to “start earlier”.
If only it were that simple…because if that were the true solution, it would have been implemented already by everyone to maximum effect!
This should be said: Anglophones are not the only ones that learn languages in school and then forget how to use them completely…I’ve seen people make confessions of this sort everywhere I have been. Even those fluent in a number of languages in the double-digits!
The idea that childhood usage = adult usage can be refuted by noting the case of the Kindertransport, Jewish children adopted by other families from Nazi Germany, many of whom forgot to use German entirely. I’ve even encountered people in my age demographic who have forgotten their native language completely as well!
Well, then…you may say…certainly starting earlier means that you speak with a perfect accent, right…? Right?
That may be the case, but also ask anyone who has worked with accent training for singers and accents…
Once you learn how to position your mouth and tongue accordingly, you can imitate any sound on the planet, regardless of what you may have heard about your mouth taking its shape at age 10 (or so) and refusing to morph any further (or learn any new sounds).
These positions can be learned. And there is one thing I tell anyone who says that he or she is “not a language person”:
If you can imitate a voice, you can do any accent.
I’ve heard countless young people imitate their co-workers and peers on the streets of Manhattan. Certainly they have no excuse as far as the accent is concerned.
There is one argument that I will concede to the “earlier = better” crowd. In a way, it makes the racking up of hours in your target language easier. Learning a language isn’t exactly about early exposure nor is it about courses taken. It is the amount of hours plugged into the task.
Here’s the good news for you folks reading this on the internet:
Thanks to the Web, your chances to get your hours for your target language are extraordinarily common, more than your parents certainly would have ever had it when they were your age.
There are many reasons that people that undertake language projects don’t reach their goals. Having started too late in life isn’t a serious issue. The list of serious issues will come in another article (and I hope that language teachers especially will be reading it).
To conclude, there is one thing…ONE mindset, that American society will need to adopt it ever it seeks to overcome its reputation as notoriously monolingual…and it most definitely is capable of it…
Learn from the Sorbs, and repeat after me…and them:
It is Never Too Late!
P.S. Ah, I found that video!