Your Plastic Brain

Smi32neuronWhen Fred (not his real name) turned sixty-five, he retired and did something he had always wanted to do: he returned to school. Fred joined students more than forty years younger than he and began studying for a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree, the degree that many pastors and priests earn (complete the requirements for) before they begin their work. Most M.Div. degrees require students to learn Hebrew and Greek – the original (at the beginning) languages used to write the Bible – well enough to read them. Fred did, and he earned his degree.

Last year, Gary Marcus wrote a book called Guitar Zero. In it he described learning how to play the guitar after he was forty years old. He succeeded and has played for audiences in Brooklyn, New York, where he lives. After his book was published, Marcus discovered that other people had had similar experiences. A journalist wrote to tell him about her seventy-six-year-old father. He had learned to play the guitar when he was older and had recently written her to say that he and two friends had formed a band called “The Three Grandfathers.” An engineer in Portland, Oregon, told him how he had returned to the guitar after he had a heart attack when he was in his sixties (60-69 years old).

Should we be surprised by these stories? Some people would be. Some people believe that you have to start when you’re young if you want to do certain things, like learn a new language or how to play a musical instrument. They believe that the connections in our brains have become permanent by the time we are adults and can’t be changed. If that’s true, you’ll never be able to do these things very well.

Marcus, a psychology professor at New York University, says that scientific evidence for this belief, called the critical-period theory, is far weaker (less strong) than widely supposed (believed). James Old, a neuroscience (brain science) professor at George Mason University, agrees. He says that the adult mind is “very plastic.” In other words, it can be changed, even when you’re older; old connections can be broken and new ones made. According to Olds, “The brain has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly (while being used), altering (changing) the way it functions (works or operates).” That’s good news, especially for older adults!

Near the end of his book, Marcus makes another point (states another fact or opinion) that applies to (affects) language learners. He points out (tells us) that the process of developing a new skill can bring as much pleasure as accomplishing the goal. This is especially true for language learners because the key to language development is reading and listening – to ESL Podcast, for example – for your own pleasure. More good news!

~ Warren Ediger – English tutor/coach and creator of the Successful English web site.

Photo of neurons courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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21 Responses to Your Plastic Brain

  1. emiliano says:

    Marvellous article Warren, as ever, and by my part or side

    Reading it has been like fresh air inside my mind, because
    you know “I am old” and I do think that mind is “very plastic”
    at least mine it is, but just reading what other wise people
    said about the subject is really good.

    How much I do like reading your notes dear Warren, thanks
    Yours faithfully as ever I am. emiliano

  2. Dan says:

    Hello global classmates,

    I am not surprised by these stories. I convinced that that is perfectly doable.

    It never too late to start doing things or learning something.

    Personally, I have this to do nothing theory.

    I like doing nothing. This way I have this feeling that from tomorrow I can start doing whatever I want

    For example: I have no plitical party. I am free to choose one.
    The same with religion and everything else.

    I like this feeling of, can I say Freeness/Liberty of choice.

    Well, I am not sure what I am writing sine I have just finished eating a gigantic bowl of beans
    and my belly is streched to the limit.
    I ‘d better go back in the kitchen and get the dishes washed up.

    Maybe I’ll write something else in coming days.


  3. paddybird says:

    Thank you Warren,
    I very enjoy this article,
    and I’m comforted to do
    my daily english learning.
    Now I’m able to have confindence that
    it is not in vain while I am in middle of fifties
    to try something new.

    Thank you Warren again,
    nice stories!!

  4. Peter says:

    Dear warren
    I hate to be the bearer of sad tides ,but they couldn’t be more wrong.
    Why are they wrong!!
    I m a living proof of it.
    I consider my self an English Learner who studied the language relentlessly day in ,day out for God knows how long.
    During all these years of study ,I have been doing everything. I mean everything, to lose my accent.yet , it is there my friend ,stubborn and strong.
    I got my pronunciation fixed and everything. But , how about the intonation?
    The accent is still there my friend
    Let me go about it at a different angle
    I have been studying this language for ages . I have been living in Toronto for years. Still, two lines through my comments you ,Jeff , Lucy and all other fellow anglophones can tell English is not my first language.

    So , tell me my friend where all these hard work got me. No where!!!!
    I don’t know about other stuff . But ,when it comes to language learning . The lobe of brain responsible for it gets as hard as stone passing a certain age.

    So , don’t come out and tell me”Miracle happens.”


  5. Rafael says:

    What big article.

    I am 24 years old and sometimes I think I am becoming old and that’s wahy I often forget lots of new vocabularies.

    At first glance I always thought that old people couldn’t learn easily as a young people can. But now, reading this article, I could see that I was wrong. This article is mind-blowing. This my old thought is now just water under the bridge.

    Come to thing of if, how can I had the nerve to think about those things.


    I wish my english learning friend well!

    It’s nice to be alongside you guys.

  6. richard says:

    It is really prrety good stories.I think it is true that it is not too late to learn new thing.But it is hard for elder people to learn new thing than younger one.So should not wast time when you are young.I believe our brain is plastic and could change with time or whatevet you are. Of course, interesting can help you learn easier and give a lot more of pleasure on the way to success.Hope every one get good result with learning english as a foreign language.

  7. Peter says:

    Dear Warren,
    Don’t take it personally please. I mean don’t take it to heart. It has nothing to do with you. your post is wonderfully done.
    Please understand me,it is so frustrating.Do u feel me ? You go out of your way to pickup a new Language. You invest a great amount of time and finance hoping one day you become able to speak like a native of the language. But , sadly , when you come to realize that it is humanly possible. Your hope basically dashes.
    It is sad!!!
    Once I started the whole thing , I shot for becoming an Anglophone one day,English wise. I never aimed for being just good at it. I hate to admit it , but it never happened.
    Perhaps , I had set the bar too high. Perhaps is just a pipe dream.
    Still,it is a ligit dream. I never wish to fly. But turns out, it is as impossible.
    Eslpod program has been helping me a lot in terms of the transition. thanks to Eslpod i took a huge leap,no argue there. I really appreciative that way.

    Your post got all the pent-up emotions stirred up inside me . Your post pushed the botton:)

    Thanks for being a good sport about it

  8. Dan says:

    Hey Peter,

    What I do not get, is why you want to drop your accent in the first place.

    I mean, everyone has an accent. For me the beauty is just that you have your accent.

    Think if everyone spoke the same as everyone else without accent..would not that be a boring world?

    My take on that is keep your accent and be happy with that.


  9. Genji says:

    Nice news!
    I started ESL Podcast about a year ago.
    I’m very inspired by this article.
    I will do my best.
    67 years old student of ABC…..

  10. Peter says:

    Dear Dan,
    It is very nice of you reading my comments.
    As you know , I live in an English speaking country. Things are different around here.
    Let me draw a picture for you.
    having an accent is not as rewarding as you painted it around here ,my friend
    Please keep in mind having a dialect is sth and having an accent is sth else
    You may have a different dilection from some other part of the country of your residence , yet the accent and intonation is the same across the country.
    Having an accent in an English-speaking country weigh you down my friend.
    To mention a few , There are some certain jobs you can’t get merely because you have a distinctive accent different with the accent that the official Languge of the country is spoken by. In simpler words , you have a foreign accent.
    Allow me to give you somd instances.
    Here , in Tironto , you can’t get a job ,say, as a fire fighter unless you speak in English with Canadian rather American accent, they are almost the same.
    You know ,
    I once applied for a job in radio as a talk show host and at the same time , on TV , I had all the document requirement. went back to school for it to get a license for it. Needless to say I was never called in for an interview for the accent.yep, you guess is one hundred percent accurate. the accent was the only obstacle between me and the job.
    But , my good man Dan , the story never ends here.

    Having an accent , people can’t understand you subsequentky they have to stop you to ask what you just said. it is a pain in neck in particular in an Important neeting or group discusion or assembling, and so on. The situation get worse while conversing on the phone. Oh man , it is a pain.
    Lucky me , I have past all these stage. I never get asked to repeat myself weather in person or on the phone But , the accent is still there. All I managed to do here is moving from a tick , strong accent to a milde one so everybody can understand me

    People , still keep asking me where I m coming from.
    Let me tell another thing , girls around here don’t dig guys with an accent.
    Let me tell u sth My friend. I don’t mind any of these. What I do mind is that people never give you the credit you deserve for the accent you have, English wise.
    They judge you man. You have an accent ,so your English must not be that good. And that is the kicker ,to me

    Long story short , a foreign accent is sth that keep getting in the way.


  11. emiliano says:

    Dear Genji, more or less like me.
    Age doesn´t matter at all.

    If you are learning a foreign language it is one of
    the best forms of platicing your brain…….I know it quite well.

    See you here my friend and welcome.


  12. Betty says:

    Hi Elvis

    I hope you have not forgotten me. I am very sorry that it took me so long to write a message which hopefully will answer the question you asked me on19th November last year.

    You asked how I reinforced my memory to words.

    I actually was very bad in remembering words. My basic theory is, if you need something, you will keep it. It is the same for vocabularies. If you need some difficult-to-remember words, e.g. because of the nature of your job, you will remember them. If you never need to use the words, you will forget them. Even something you buy with your hard earned money, say, a T Shirt, if you do not need it and put it at the back of your wardrobe, you will soon forget it.

    OK, I have made it sound so simple. In fact learning English and be good at it is not so simple. I have been thinking how to say it to make it meaningful.

    I remember our blog friend Chinajoe Said on 1st January 2012 (In Article: Top 5 Memories of 2011, posted by Jeff on 27 December 2011):

    “3. Anymemo – It is a sofeware I used to memorize English words through Android HTC cellphone. Hitheto, I have already studied 6,700 GRE words, and I can recognize passively 85% of them. It is the best way to learn new words in my 16 years’ English study experience. Had I have a Android cellphone and the Anymemo in my school years, I would exclaim how great I could be. I need to review nearly 500 old words and learn 50 new words every day, which cost me at least 2 hours”.

    If you have an Android phone, you can try to use “Anymemo” to help you.

    Recently, I am very happy to have read something from a website called “antimoon”.

    If you google “antimoon,kamil oleksiak” you will find something called “Report from an English learner: Kamil Oleksiak”

    Kamil is only 20 years old, and yet he is an inspiration for many serious English learners in the world.

    What I liked most is, in his article he says: “I spend more than an hour a day on watching and listening to English. I often listen to podcasts. ESLPod is a perfect website to improve listening. I like the fact that once every few days they upload new podcasts. The speakers talk quite slowly, plus have a great sense of humour and therefore they hold my attention”.

    Please read his whole article and you may learn something from him how to overcome difficulties in learning English. Please note he said he used “SuperMemo”.

    Please also google “antimoon, tomandsm”, you will find something called “Me and SuperMemo”.

    Read his article and see if you will find something there to help you remember vocabularies.

    Finally, something more serious to think about, is to sleep well if you want to have a good memory.

    Please google “To Sleep, Perchance… To Remember?”.

    You will find a lot of interesting articles about why sleeping helps us to remember things better.

    I am sorry I think all the articles are too long to be posted here. But please please at least read Kamil Oleksiak’s article, he says:

    “I guess the toughest part of studying English was learning vocabulary. It was a horrendously demanding task. We used to have zillions of tests on vocabulary during our conversation and integrated skills classes. Vocabulary used to be my Achilles’ heel”………

    Elvis I know it was a long time ago since you asked me how I remember words, you might have found a very good method to remember words already.

    If not, I hope you will be reading this post of mine and read from all the good articles from other learners who were kind enough to share their experiences with us about remembering vocabularies.

    I wish you every success in your English learning journey.

    Best Regards

    Betty 🙂

  13. Dan says:

    Thanks Peter,

    It is interesting reading from your standpoint in that Coutry

    Reading your reply I could feel/read between the line some sort of bitterness. Am I correct?

    Well, wish you the best of luck with everything you wanna do up there.

    Bye! take care

  14. Dan says:

    Hey Betty envision this:

    Clapping my hands in rhythm while shouting:

    Be-tty! Be-tty! Be-tty! Be-tty!Be-tty …ahahahaahahaha:-)

  15. Betty says:

    Thanks, Dan, I can feel that you are happy.

    You really had had a lot of beans!

    You are “full of beans”!

    Your message is 3D and has sound effect. I can see you clapping your hands in rhythm while shouting:
    Be-tty! Be-tty! Be-tty! Be-tty!Be-tty …ahahahaahahaha.

    Hey, you are waking the cats up. The mice will be worried now.

    Anyway, it is very nice to get up in the morning and read a cheerful message like yours. It has encouraged me to write something first even my tummy was longing for a cup of breakfast tea.

    Your message is as refreshing as a good night’s sleep.

    Thank you again.

    Thank you again also to my great teacher Warren.

    I always remember your article “Bobby was Right!”. and remember Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”.

    All the best wishes to you all

    Betty 🙂

  16. Karen says:

    Thank you for this article. There are some many things I want to do and sometimes I feel I am not going to have the strength and energy to do it. One of the things I want to do is to move from where I live and that’s why I want to improve my English skills. Other goal that I have is to go back to college and earn another degree…

  17. Giovanni Soccol says:

    Age is what you feel not that dictated by the calander. I’m 70 this year and I’m still capable to feel a great joy : to listen to Mr. Jeff and Mrs Tse. I’m sure I’ll be able to make myself understood to Mr. William Shakespeare in heaven in the future. (not before 30 years at least I hope!)
    A happy 2013 to all my companion listeners hoping they will never give up to improve languages.
    From Italy with love.

  18. Ferman Golla says:

    Good article Dr Warren, as usual…;)
    I believe that never grow old to learn something but to be mature,, right??
    I have a four-month-son, I don’t know that this is true or not, but I’ve played and listened the esl podcast to him everyday since still in his mother’s womb until now. I just hope that he won’t be late to learn English like me..
    Best wishes…
    Ferman Golla from Indonesia

  19. emiliano says:

    Yes Giovanni….I think the same like you, so BRAVO
    my friend….go ahead and write more.

    Feliz Año 2013 from Spain


  20. Betty says:

    Hi Ferman Golla

    You are a good father. You are clever in letting your son learn from our great teachers in ESLPOD.COM.

    Always learn from the experts and let the professionals do the job especially when it comes to your precious children’s education.

    I am sure your son will become a very good English scholar, the rising star of tomorrow’s world.

    Best wishes.

    Betty 🙂

  21. Ferman Golla says:

    Hi Betty…
    Thanks for the prayer to my son. I appreciate it… Even just in cyber world we meet, but I hope, through this blog we all can share our thoughts in learning and improving English. God Bless U…

    Ferman from Indonesia

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