Nautilus

We All Used to Be Geniuses

 

ThomasLife via Flickr

To adults learning a second language, it hardly seems fair: As they stumble their way through conjugation drills, fret over grammar textbooks, and fill in worksheets on constructing subordinate clauses, their children sop up the language while finger painting at preschool. Within months, correct syntax pours itself out of the tykes’ mouths, involving no apparent mental exertion on their part.

In her 2010 TED talk, researcher Patricia Kuhl described children as language-learning “geniuses.” In contrast, people who start learning a language in adulthood rarely reach the summit of native-like proficiency, even after decades of strenuous effort. An enduring scientific mystery is why adults

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