Let me say publicly that DonBoy’s answer exudes a combination of intuitive genius and confidence that make me think DonBoy is going to do big things in his life. -- Steven D. Levitt (Freakonomics blog)
Thursday, June 22, 2006
Blog Comment of the Day And Its Context

First, the setup: this from a poor guy named Colin, in a Jane Galt thread about bilingualism and how the ability to learn new natural languages decays after childhood:

As a software developer, I can't give much credence to the thought that we lose the ability to learn a new language.

When learning a new programming language you must learn the changes in syntax and semantics. Ditto for a new spoken language ("black cat" vs. "gato negro"). When learning a new programming language you must learn the vocabulary changes. Ditto for a new spoken language but on a much larger scale.

I know, perhaps, a dozen programming languages and picking up new ones isn't that difficult. I knew only one under the age of 12 (BASIC on an Apple IIc).

So what makes a spoken language so drastically different from programming languages that one can learn a dozen programming languages after age 12 (I would contend even that all programming languages are created by adults) but, supposedly, cannot learn a second, new spoken language?

The difference would seem to lie almost entirely in the political, economic, and social spheres. At least I don't recall any administration lobbying to require knowledge of Java or HTML to become a citizen...

Correlating language learning ability to age reminds me of that classic book by Herrnstein & Murray: The Bell Curve. Granted, I'd give more credence to correlating with age since it's quite obvious to me that our brain changes as we age: all those that remember your mother's womb, please raise your hand.

OK. Ignorance is curable, although:
-- I thought that the knowledge of the childhood window for language acquisition was common knowledge among people with any interest at all in science.
-- The idea that learning a programming language is enough like learning a natural language that a person's experience with the former is useful in understanding the latter strikes me as an idea that could only be held by someone who hasn't learned another natural language at all, and also has no introspection into how complex their own language is.
-- That reference to The Bell Curve is an interesting bit, though. Language-module-believing-in bigots!

Fortunately, this payoff from Rob Lyman makes it all worthwhile:

I'm a poor programmer whose solution to execution failures is type louder and more slowly.

Jane/Megan knows good stuff when she sees it, and flagged it as comment of the day. But I swear I picked it out first!

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