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  1. Senior Member
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    #1

    Do you think learning a language requires empathy?

    Learning a language is a difficult thing to do. You need to memorize a plethora of words, some of which are simply not-translatable, and some are false cognates. Learning grammar, especially when it's completely different from that in your first language, can make you question the grammar rules of your mothertongue, or even make you start making grammar mistakes when speaking your first language (something that's happend to me, for example, I blame it on the fact I can speak several languages to some extent). However, I don't think that's everything it takes to learn a language. If it were the only things required, that would mean you (just) need to be intelligent enough (as intelligence is the ability to recognize and replicate patterns), but there are many people who are inarguably intelligent, yet they aren't able to learn languages, so there must be something else.

    I remember that I loved watching videos in English back when I was a little child. I didn't understand squat of what the actors were saying, but through their acting, I could deduce what emotion and intention they had when speaking some words. I still remember the first English phrase I learned this way: "trust me". But to be able to get yourself into the mind of someone who's speaking, to feel their emotion and intention, you need to have empathy. I'd even say a higher than average level of empathy. It is, after all, the trait that allows you to imagine what the others feel, based on their body language, intonation, and all other non-verbal ways of communication.

    The tiny differences in meaning between different grammatical structures and word combinations all come down to what meaning the person wanted their words to convey, and this is closely related to their emotion and intention. "You're always losing your keys" does not mean you literally mean somebody always loses their keys, it's more of a complaint. "We could've had it all" indicates regret, seeing the situation as a missed opportunity, something that "we could have it all" doesn't convey. If you don't have enough empathy to feel these emotions, you can't understand these differences, or at least it won't be natural for you to use the same structures yourself and, therefore, you aren't able to truly learn the language. Understanding jokes, sarcrasm, irony, poetry, and metaphors is an indication that you've learned the language, on the emotional level.

    Anyways, this is how I see it. What do you think?

  2. probus's Avatar
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    #2

    Re: Do you think learning a language requires empathy?

    Here's a quick answer. I will flesh out these points in another post.

    1. The case of autistic people probably has answers for your question. They lack empathy but can still use language. I have no first hand experience with them.

    2. Language is innate. Infants WILL acquire a language. This is the principal, if not the only, thing that distinguishes us from other animals.

    3. There are degrees of language. Mother tongues differ from languages acquired later in life.

    4. There is a genetic factor. This is probably my only controversial point, but I believe some of us are more able rhan others.
    Last edited by probus; 22-May-2019 at 13:13.

  3. jutfrank's Avatar
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    #3

    Re: Do you think learning a language requires empathy?

    I completely agree with pretty much everything you've said.

    But, as probus points out, you don't need to be exceptionally intelligent or empathetic to learn a language. However, I do think that to be exceptionally good at using language (what some would call high in 'linguistic intelligence'), you do need to be highly empathetic. Autism is a pretty good example, actually.

    This is just my opinion. I do believe there is good evidence to support this opinion but I can't offer it here.

    Another point I would make is that I don't think that linguistic intelligence is particularly related to pattern recognition. It is, but not particularly, especially when compared to other kinds of intelligences, like visual-spatial, or musical, for example. Again, just my opinion.

    (If you don't already know about Howard Gardner's 'multiple intelligences theory', check it out.)

  4. Senior Member
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    #4

    Re: Do you think learning a language requires empathy?

    Thank you for your opinions. Can I ask two more questions?

    What do you think about the influence of the lateralization of brain function on the ability to learning language? The case of children brought up among wild animals is a curious one.

    Written language is much different from spoken language. Do you think that spoken language can evoke emotions written language can't? I think books are a great example of how differently a written conversation can be imagined, which is why adaptations are always a subject to dissatisfaction caused by being different from the interpretation of the viewer.

    EDIT: I believe this is why some actors can be really good at evoking emotions, and some can be painfully bad to watch.

  5. jutfrank's Avatar
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    #5

    Re: Do you think learning a language requires empathy?

    Quote Originally Posted by Glizdka View Post
    What do you think about the influence of the lateralization of brain function on the ability to learning language? The case of children brought up among wild animals is a curious one.
    I don't really understand what you mean. I'm convinced that lateralization plays a part in the process of language acquisition. I'm not sure what you mean by asking how it influences ability, though. And what do children brought up by wild animals have to do with brain lateralization?

    Written language is much different from spoken language. Do you think that spoken language can evoke emotions written language can't?
    Absolutely, yes.

    I think books are a great example of how differently a written conversation can be imagined, which is why adaptations are always a subject to dissatisfaction caused by being different from the interpretation of the viewer.
    Why do I get the feeling you're talking about Game of Thrones?

  6. Senior Member
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    #6

    Re: Do you think learning a language requires empathy?

    Quote Originally Posted by jutfrank View Post
    I don't really understand what you mean. I'm convinced that lateralization plays a part in the process of language acquisition. I'm not sure what you mean by asking how it influences ability, though. And what do children brought up by wild animals have to do with brain lateralization?
    Children brought up by wild animals have difficulty in learning language, especially if they're already in their late teens. Could it be because they've already passed the point where language skills stop developing?

  7. probus's Avatar
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    #7

    Re: Do you think learning a language requires empathy?

    Quote Originally Posted by Glizdka View Post
    Children brought up by wild animals have difficulty in learning language, especially if they're already in their late teens. Could it be because they've already passed the point where language skills stop developing?
    In my opinion that is definitely the reason. The innate infantile ability and compulsion to acquire language fades as we age. My own experience leads me to believe its persistence varies among individuals, but in most of us it is greatly reduced by the age of twenty.

  8. jutfrank's Avatar
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    #8

    Re: Do you think learning a language requires empathy?

    Quote Originally Posted by Glizdka View Post
    Children brought up by wild animals have difficulty in learning language, especially if they're already in their late teens. Could it be because they've already passed the point where language skills stop developing?
    It definitely could be, yes. The evidence is not completely unequivocal, because these wild child cases are extremely rare and complex, but I'm personally convinced that this is at least the main reason. It's what we call the critical period hypothesis.

  9. probus's Avatar
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    #9

    Re: Do you think learning a language requires empathy?

    Allow me to flesh out my gene hypothesis with a little family history.

    One of my grandmothers, an English speaker, married a French-Canadian soldier she met during the First World War. After the war they settled in his hometown of Quebec City, then as now a strongly unilingual French-speaking town. She lived there for twenty years, but on her husband's premature death she had to leave Quebec, because in all those years she had been unable to learn any French.

    My wife, who speaks several languages, and I have two intelligent and highly educated daughters. Both of them have post-graduate degrees, and both have proven throughout their lives to be utterly incapable of learning a second language, and not for lack of trying.

    As a result of those facts I have formed the hypothesis that a gene runs in our family that if expressed causes us to lose the ability to acquire language completely and relatively early. Fortunately, that gene has apparently missed me. I learned most of my Spanish after the age of twenty.

    So that's why I think that people vary widely in how able they are to learn a second language. The degree of ability depends upon both age and heredity.
    Last edited by probus; 23-May-2019 at 19:56. Reason: Expand

  10. Senior Member
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    #10

    Re: Do you think learning a language requires empathy?

    That's interesting, I think I need to read up on the topic. Thank you.

    Do you think that grammar is necessary to organize thought, but what allows you to avoid using much grammar is precise vocabulary?

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