Learning the B language as an adult

I'm a professional Japanese-to-English translator, but I didn't start learning Japanese until I was 22. There's a somewhat controversial hypothesis in linguistics called the critical period, which when extended to second-language acquisition, states that after a certain age people find it difficult to impossible to learn a second language with native-like fluency.

The cutoff age is generally taken to be around puberty, so at 22 I kind of missed the boat. The only area of language acquisition where this really holds, though, is pronunciation. People who learn a second language after puberty generally have a foreign accent their whole lives, while those learning it before puberty will have a native accent.

Built-in cutoff switch?

One linguistics professor of mine had an interesting hypothesis as to why this was so. As we know, our use of language identifies us culturally, socially, and regionally. He reasoned that when we're children, our job is to assimilate into the surrounding culture(s); but when we're adults, our job is to be productive members of the community, and identify ourselves as members of it. He thought this was why the ability to pick up foreign accents "shuts off" after puberty. At this point we're supposed to be identifying ourselves as members of our group, not haring off to join those guys over in the next valley.

I should also note that some rare people learn a second language as adults, and don't have a notable foreign accent. But they will tend to make very occasional slips, which become more frequent when tired or stressed. There have also been some inconclusive studies suggesting that adult second-language learners process their second language in a different part of the brain than early language learners.

But aside from pronunciation, adults actually learn the grammar (syntax and morphology) and usage (semantics and pragmatics) of the language just as quickly as children, given the same amount of stimulus. That, of course, is the problem: adults tend to have all sorts of responsibilities that prevent them from devoting as much time to language acquisition as children.

Another problem is "fossilization" — when the learner stops making progress in the second language. This is more common in adults, whose brains aren't as flexible and who don't pick up new ways of thinking as readily as children.

How hard is it?

Obviously, it's possible to become a translator even after learning the B language as an adult. I'm one example. Since we don't use the spoken language directly in our jobs (although it helps when trying to get work from foreign clients), pronunciation really doesn't come into play.

My pronunciation of Japanese actually isn't that bad. I suspect this is partly thanks to my degree in linguistics, which helped me learn to analyze and mimic the accent of Japanese. But my accent hasn't really come into play professionally. Knowledge of spoken Japanese, yes — but not my own pronunciation of it.

I'd say it takes two main qualities to learn the B language well enough to translate it as an adult:

  1. An open mind and a desire to continually learn
  2. The perseverance and dedication to spend a lot of time mastering it

Assuming you've got the first one, what it really boils down to is perseverance: being willing and able to put in the time necessary to learn the B language well, when all those pesky adult responsibilities like earning your rent money are intruding on your time.

How much time do you have to spend? Various studies seem to show that no matter what the field, it takes about 10,000 hours to master it. This would mean using the B language 20 hours a week for roughly ten years, or 40 hours a week for roughly five years. That's a lot of time to put in!

And then, of course, you've got to master the skill of translation — pile on another five years of working full time — plus another five years full-time to learn a specialty! Fifteen years to become an expert translator? Might as well give up at this point and do something easy, like become a cardiologist. They have worse hours but better social status and make more money.

So add two more necessary qualities: a deep love of the craft of translation, and a certain stubborn streak.

Conclusion

It's difficult but not impossible to become a professional translator after learning your "B" language as an adult. What it requires is perseverance, an open mind, and a constant desire to keep learning.

8 comments to Learning the B language as an adult

  • The “critical period” hypothesis (or whatever they like to call it) is, as you rightly point out, full of baloney for the most part. I speak Japanese fairly fluently and translate it to English, and I started learning at the very post-critical age of 26.

  • MT

    A key point that you did not address is that you (and Chris in the first comment) both translate from Japanese INTO English. The real question is: what age is the cut-off for learning your target language, not your source language?

  • @MT

    I didn’t mention target language because this article is specifically about the B language :). But I don’t think that there’s an age cutoff for translating into a second language; it’s just that very few people learn a foreign language as adults and go on to write it like natives — they tend to hit a point of diminishing returns, and fossilize.

    I should point out, though, that the J->E situation is rather unique in that the vast majority of J->E translation is done by native speakers of Japanese. Nearly all of the English they write is distinctly non-native (to the point where rewriting English translations done by Japanese is a major industry here), but they’re getting paid… Some of them eventually learn to produce acceptable English translations, even though nearly all of them started learning English after the so-called critical period.

  • Judy Jenner

    You are a fabulous example that there are always exceptions to the rules of language learning. 🙂 I am one of those exceptions, too, as I moved to the U.S. at age 19 and was born in Austria, and grew up in Mexico. I guess I fall in the trilingual category, citizen of the world, etc. — all the good stuff.

  • Great post, Ryan!! This is an issue I think about a lot now that I have a kid ( who is not that excited about learning a second language!) as well. In one sense, I found that when I taught high school French, the kids who had taken foreign languages in elementary school were almost invariably better at languages as teenagers, even if they had dropped the foreign language completely between, say, 4th and 9th grade. On the other hand, there’s hope; I’ve met lots of Americans (and hopefully I fit this category too!) who didn’t start learning French until age 12+ as is the unfortunate norm in schools here, and who still managed to become quite fluent/near-native.

  • MT

    Ah, sorry for my first comment, Ryan! If only English were my B language there’d be some excuse…

    I know a German who learned English as an older teen and has no discernable accent, but as you say: “they will tend to make very occasional slips.” And, sure enough, one year at Thanksgiving he couldn’t remember the word for turkey “baster” and it flummoxed him. It wouldn’t have bothered a native speaker so much. I started learning my B language(s) at the age of 19 and would be thrilled if not remembering the word for “baster” were my Achilles’ heel. But no such luck. I’m just proud that they can’t guess I’m American.

    One of the best things about being a translator (in addition to being my own boss, working from home, getting to do different kinds of texts all the time, and seeing people’s naughty corporate secrets) is that people actually PAY me to improve my language skills. Every time I parse a sentence or look up a word I think, “ah, they are paying me to do this!” For a language-learning geek, that is a true blessing! Thanks for the great post!

  • Tonya Bamberger

    Greetings, Ryan. I was directed to your blog by Cary Strunk (I studied J-E translation with him). I’ve read some of your other posts and find them quite interesting.

    As for pronunciation, I’ve read an article that says children have difficult pronouncing or hearing the sounds in foreign languages from as early as age 5, because by then a child has learned to focus on only the sounds relevant to his or her native language. When I was teaching English to Japanese first-graders, I noticed that those students had trouble pronouncing or differentiating between the English “r” and “l” sounds.

    I think that pronunciation is a skill to be mastered. Like you, I started studying Japanese a little later in life (around age 20). I met many people who lived in Japan for years and could not pronounce Japanese well (or could barely even form a sentence), and I think what it boils down to is how willing one is to become better at a language. I was pretty good at mimicking the Japanese language when I began learning it, but there were many problem areas (the short vowel sound, the “r” sound, etc.), and I had to tackle each problem area one by one and get through it. I would sit and repeat words over and over again until I got the ok from a Japanese friend. I still try to improve on my pronunciation and feel it’s far from perfect, but it took a lot of work to get to where I am now.

    The unwritten translation “rule” is to translate only into one’s native language. If that’s true, then only a passive understanding of the B language is really necessary to translate. In the in-house translation/interpreting world, however, this is not the case. About 50% of what I translate is into Japanese, and I have to interpret primarily into Japanese for meetings. My Japanese isn’t perfect, but as long as I make an effort to communicate the information to the best of my ability, it’s good enough. I’m thankful for the opportunity, because it’s quite interesting, and I’m learning a lot.

  • Good stuff, Ryan, thank you! Catching up on my back log (b-log?) of translation blogs and this entry caught my eye. One of the points you bring up lends itself to emphasizing why professionals in the translation industry deserve higher pay: Expert translators often obtain a graduate degree in a specialty area after getting a college degree in translation or language-related studies. Another five years of gaining work experience focusing on your area of specialization adds up to at least 11 years of training and training-on-the-job. These are the points to use whenever you sense an opportunity for a teaching moment with a client, potential customer, the press, friends, family, whoever – to educate them on the training required to be an expert in our profession which makes global business possible in the first place!
    Spread the good word,
    Cheerio,
    Dierk

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