Learning new skills in adulthood may seem like a daunting task. Over time there is a gradual decline of the brain’s ability to absorb new information. But experts say, with the right tools and a few tricks, we can continue to grasp and retain information as we age. The process of learning a language or how to play a new instrument offers interesting insights into the challenge. Two experts join us to talk about how mastering new and complex skills differs as we age and what it takes to become a lifelong learner.


  • Gary Marcus Professor of psychology, the director of the New York University Center for Language and Music, and author of "Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning."
  • Michael Erard Author of "Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners"

Program Highlights

Ever dream of learning a new language or to play an instrument, but felt it was too late? There might be hope. Two new books offer a glimpse into what the brain is capable of and offer some tricks to learning new skills, even in adulthood. Gary Marcus, author of the new book titled “Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning,” and Michael Erard, the author of “Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners” talk about how older adult brains learn new, complex skills.

Our Innate Abilities

Marcus thinks that just as humans are born with a capacity to learn language, we can also learn music. It just takes most people a little longer to figure out the abstract nature of music. Moreover, Marcus thinks that our ability to learn language actually contributes to our ability to learn music. Erard has done research on people who speak many languages, and found that they generally have hig proficiency in a certain group of languages, middling proficiency in others, and somewhat limited proficiency in something he calls “surge languages” that they need to activate in memory to be able to use. Erard said such people may be able to create and retrieve memories more quickly, and that there is overlap between how the brain learns languages and how it learns musical skills.

Language And Music Draw In All Parts Of The Brain

Learning a language engages all parts of the brain, Erard said. Erard wrote about a man who won a contest in Brussels in 1990 to find the “most multilingual” European. A Scottish church organist, Derick Heming. Heming could converse with native speaker judges in 22 languages. Erard said Heming has what he calls a “will to plasticity,” which is a commitment to having a different brain tomorrow than the one he had yesterday. People like Heming, Erard said, don’t have language barriers like most people.

In Music, Focusing On Weaknesses Is Key

In music, as with other skills, Marcus found that those who focused on their weaknesses show the most improvement. Anders Ericsson called this “deliberate practice.” “Regardless of what strategy you use, you can’t just sit there rehearsing things you already know,” he said. Also, children do have some advantages when first learning an instrument. Their expectations for how good they will sound is lower, so they just keep practicing. Adults want to sound good right away. The lack of self-consciousness, then, is really a great benefit for kids, Marcus said.

The Minute Learning Is Not Fun, People Stop

Marcus spoke to several teachers during the course of his research, and one of his favorites, a Suzuki music teacher named Michelle Homer, tries to encourage parents not to discourage their children when they practice their instrument. Homer tells parents not to correct their children unless they’ve made the same mistake three times. “That’s all about keeping the learning process fun,” Marcus said. “The minute it’s not fun, people stop,” he said.

You can read the full transcript here.


  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Ever dream of learning a new language or to play an instrument, but felt it was too late? There might be hope. Two new books offer a glimpse into what the brain is capable of and offer some tricks to learning new skills, even in adulthood. Joining me in the studio, Gary Marcus.

  • 11:07:20

    MS. DIANE REHMHe's author of the new book titled "Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning." And Michael Erard, he's author of "Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners." I'll look forward to hearing from you throughout the hour. You can join us by phone, email, Facebook or Twitter. And good morning to both of you.

  • 11:07:51

    MR. MICHAEL ERARDThanks so much for having us.

  • 11:07:52

    DR. GARY MARCUSGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:07:53

    REHMGood to have you here. Gary Marcus, let's start with you. I know you've studied brain development at infancy. What can you tell us about the ability to learn language and music in infancy?

  • 11:08:12

    MARCUSInfants are born being able to learn. They're really interested in what's going on. And even before they're talking, they're really analyzing the world, trying to understand the language around them. So one study that I did several years ago was with seven month old babies. And we just played them sentences in a made-up language. We didn't pay them like we pay our undergraduate subjects. They were just there, you know, doing it out of the kindness of their parents' hearts, really.

  • 11:08:36

    MARCUSAnd they would sit there, they would listen for two minutes to a bunch of sentences. They'd be like, la-ta-ta, ga-na-na, produced by a speech synthesizer. There was no formal content in them. It was just these sentences. And the two -- the seven-month-olds would listen for two minutes and then when we'd either change it up and give them a different kind of sentence like, whoa fae whoa which had a different structure or whoa fa fa that had the same structure, if we changed the structure, they were interested, they would listen longer.

  • 11:09:01

    MARCUSSo we could tell, even though they weren't talking yet, they were trying to figure out, hey, what is this language stuff that's going on around me? Turns out, they can't do that with music quite as quickly. So we did follow-up studies and they can do it with language at seven months, but music, they're not quite as keyed into the abstract structure of. And...

  • 11:09:19

    REHMSo what does that say to you about the ability of individuals as they get a little older, say four, five, six to take in those different sounds, imitate them, learn new things?

  • 11:09:37

    MARCUSWell, I think every human being is born with the ability to acquire language. They all do it pretty effortlessly. Many people acquire music. It's not quite as effortless for some people like me. Maybe we'll talk about that later. Music did not come naturally for me unlike language. And there are individual differences. So some people have a little bit more aptitude then other people. But everybody, certainly, starts with an ability to learn language and I think that actually contributes to the ability to learn music.

  • 11:10:03

    REHMAnd turning to you, Michael Erard, you looked at people who can speak many, many languages.

  • 11:10:11


  • 11:10:12

    REHMWas there a common factor that sort of linked these people?

  • 11:10:18

    ERARDExcuse me. One thing that definitely linked them was the fact that they spoke a lot of languages at varying proficiencies. So one common notion is that to be a hyper-polyglots means that you...

  • 11:10:33


  • 11:10:35

    ERARDYeah. So...

  • 11:10:35

    REHM...what a word.

  • 11:10:37

    ERARD...that they speak all those languages to the same degree. You know, but even multilinguals or bilinguals commonly don't have their languages in equal proportions. And so the polyglots sort of have this kind of patchwork of abilities. They'll have very high proficiency in a group of languages and then some middling proficiency and then a long tale, I call it, of surge languages, languages that they need to activate in memory in order to be able to use.

  • 11:11:07

    REHMDo their brains function differently?

  • 11:11:11

    ERARDThan ours?

  • 11:11:12


  • 11:11:13

    ERARDThat's kind of an open question. I mean, I think that they learn second languages like everyone else learns second languages and they process them in the same way. They have components of language learning aptitude, they may be able to pay attention to the grammatical structures of languages in particular ways. They may be able to discriminate sounds differently. And they may also have memories that are different. They create memories and are able to retrieve them more quickly in order to be able to use them.

  • 11:11:50

    REHMMichael Erard, his new book is titled "Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners." And Gary Marcus, his new book is titled "Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning." Do join us, 80-433-8850, send us your email to drshow@wamu.org, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Gary, I wonder if you see differences in the brain between learning language and learning music?

  • 11:12:38

    MARCUSSo there's a lot of overlap in the brain between the ways in which we learn language and the ways we learn music but they're not identical. So both language and music, for example, are hierarchical structures. You can take small pieces and make larger pieces and then make still bigger pieces. So you can take a word, put it together in a sentence and put the sentence together in a paragraph or you can take a few notes, put those together into a motif and create a whole song. So parts of the brain like Broca's area that seem to be heavily involved in that kind of process...

  • 11:13:05

    REHMWhat's that area?

  • 11:13:06

    MARCUSIt's called Broca's area. It was discovered 150, 200 years ago. And that's the thing that people most associate with learning language.

  • 11:13:14

    REHMWhere is it?

  • 11:13:15

    MARCUSIt's on the left-side sort of, a little bit in front of your ear.

  • 11:13:18


  • 11:13:19

    MARCUSHowever, I want to put a codicil on that, which is people always talk about language in Broca's area, but what we now know is that a lot of the brain is involved in language and in music. So they're both actually spread throughout the brain. So if you read a textbook, it'll say, language is in Broca's area. But what we now know is that both of these skills, language and music, draw in all kinds of different parts of the brain.

  • 11:13:41

    REHMMichael, you were shaking your head.

  • 11:13:44

    ERARDOh, nodding, yeah, I mean, absolutely. Language learning, particularly second language learning is something that engages all the parts of the brain. When you were asking about where Broca's is, in "Babel No More" I give a metaphor for the brain as a globe. So if you imagine holding the globe with the prime meridian right in front of you and your hands on the equator, opposite of each other, Broca's would be sort of between your thumb and your forefinger. Sort of the Indian Ocean, Saudi Arabia.

  • 11:14:21

    REHMTell me what set you off on this learning process about these people who are able to learn so many languages.

  • 11:14:33

    ERARDIt was really a discussion among linguists on a ListServ back in 2004 where people asked, who is the most lingual person in the world? Who is the person who speaks the most languages? And there was such a huge amount of disagreement over whether or not that person could actually exist, that I knew that there was a story to be told so I wrote a magazine article for The New Scientist about it.

  • 11:14:58

    ERARDBut even then, there were so many questions that were -- that I needed more room. So what does it mean to speak a language? Who are some of the historical characters? Are they myths or are they real? How were their stories inflated and reflected by their times? And how were the standards of what it meant to know a language or speak a language, how did those help create their myths?

  • 11:15:25

    REHMAnd did you find one person in the world that you can say knows the most languages?

  • 11:15:37

    ERARDI did. Oh, do I have to tell you who it is?

  • 11:15:40


  • 11:15:40

    ERARDYeah, so there was -- in 1987 and in 1990, there were two contests in Brussels, one to find the most multilingual Belgian and the second one to find the most multilingual European. The second contest was even more stringent than the first and the person who won was a Scottish church organist named Derick Herning. He lives in the Shetland Islands. And he was given points for being able to communicate, being able to converse with native speaker judges in something like 22 languages.

  • 11:16:17

    REHMDid you speak with him?

  • 11:16:19

    ERARDI've spoken with him many times on the phone. He received a -- he's quite an interesting fellow. He received some huge brass trophy which he took back home with him. And I asked him if he still has it and he said, oh, yes, my wife, she hangs her hat on it.

  • 11:16:37

    REHMAnd second place went to?

  • 11:16:40

    ERARDOh, I don't remember, that's lost in time.

  • 11:16:42

    REHMSomebody who spoke perhaps 20 languages rather...

  • 11:16:45

    ERARDSomething like that.

  • 11:16:45

    REHM...than 22.

  • 11:16:47


  • 11:16:47

    REHMAnd did you talk to this person about how he was able to acquire so many languages?

  • 11:16:56

    ERARDI did in very general terms. One of the interesting things about Derick and a lot of these other characters is that they -- a language barrier doesn't exist for them. Someone speaking another language or a place or a menu or -- to them, it's an opportunity to learn something else. In the book, I call it "this will to plasticity," you know, this commitment to have a different brain tomorrow than the one that you had yesterday. And they really embrace that, embrace that fully.

  • 11:17:30

    REHMHow many languages do you speak?

  • 11:17:32

    ERARDOh, gosh, I mean, I call myself a monolingual with benefits, you know. I basically speak English, but I've studied some other ones, too.

  • 11:17:40

    REHMGo ahead, Gary.

  • 11:17:41

    MARCUSI was just going to say, you see that same will to plasticity in professional musicians who have the same drive. There are some who play many, many instruments, like Prince plays all of the instruments, I think, on one of his records and he can play like a dozen different instruments. And so, I think, you know, he learned a few as a kid and he just kept going and he loves learning new instruments. There are a lot of people like that.

  • 11:18:00

    REHMTeaching himself?

  • 11:18:02

    MARCUSYeah. Teaching himself. I'm sure he takes professional lessons. Paul McCartney was like that, too. I think some of the tension in the Beatles came when Paul started playing the drum fills when Ringo was out having a cigarette.

  • 11:18:14

    REHMGary Marcus, his new book is titled "Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning." And Michael Erard, his new book is titled "Babel No More." We're going to take a short break, but you can call us, 800-433-8850, send us your email, your Facebook postings or Tweets.

  • 11:20:05

    REHMAnd welcome back. I have two most interesting gentlemen here in the studio with me. Michael Erard has been looking for the world's most extraordinary language learners. He's written a book titled "Babel No More." Gary Marcus has written a book. His is titled "Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning." Our lines are filled right now. We'll get to the phones very quickly, but you can join us by sending an email to drshow@wamu.org. You can also send us a posting on Facebook or a tweet. Tell me how you worked or watched young children, Gary, as they learned to play an instrument.

  • 11:21:14

    MARCUSI did a great deal of watching young children learning to play, children of different ages. So everywhere from a year or two using something called the Dalcroze Method where the kids would walk around the classroom. And the teacher would play in time with the kids in order to get the kids to understand the relation between the tempo of music and the tempo of what the kids were doing.

  • 11:21:35

    MARCUSWhat I loved about that is it was the teacher matching the kids rather than making the kids match the teacher. So I sat in on that. I sat in on Suzuki guitar lessons with a wonderful teacher in Brooklyn named Michelle Horner and a student of hers that has practiced every day for the last two years. And I allowed her to close the opening that I did in New York the other day. It was fantastic.

  • 11:21:56

    MARCUSAnd then I also went to a summer camp in Baltimore just up the road called Day Jams. And the idea of this summer camp is that a bunch of 11-year-olds get together on day one on Monday. They've not played before and some of them played before and they certainly haven't played together before. And by Friday they play on stage with their parents. And I joined the band. I learned to play bass for the occasion. And I brought my parents. It was one of the most terrifying things I ever did.

  • 11:22:22

    REHMReally. How did they react?

  • 11:22:25

    MARCUSI think my parents were supportive. My grade school teacher did come and tell me that I shouldn't quit my day job, I have to admit.

  • 11:22:32

    REHMBut, you know, in the book, you say that children's first efforts to sing are often admirable, but rarely musical. Shirley Temple must have been the exception to the rule.

  • 11:22:49

    MARCUSThere certainly are some exceptions. So, I mean, there are kids with absolute pitch that come from musical families and are able to sing pretty well right away. And then there are people like me who in their, you know, early 40s are still struggling with it.

  • 11:23:02

    REHMThat whole notion of perfect pitch, where does it come from?

  • 11:23:09

    MARCUSPerfect pitch is a funny thing. It's probably partly built into the brain, that we're sensitive to basically particular frequencies. But to really have perfect pitch in the way that people talk about in scientific literature, you have to be able to name the notes. And what the notes are varies from culture to culture. So there's a kind of acoustic auditory part of it and then there's a culture conventioning. You have to align those two and that takes some kind of practice. And there's probably a genetic component and probably a learned environment component.

  • 11:23:36

    REHMYou know, it's interesting and I wonder if there's something similar, a perfect pitch when you're dealing with language because some languages tend to be more musical than others.

  • 11:23:52

    ERARDYeah, I mean, so there's been some brain research on people who are phoneticians. So who...

  • 11:24:00


  • 11:24:01

    ERARDSo who professionally deal with the speech sounds of foreign languages. And they found that those people have anatomically larger acoustic centers in their brains and that they process sounds different. And that was something that preexisted any practice or exposure that they had.

  • 11:24:23

    REHMBut now how does all this relate to the broader sense of learning? If you can learn language you can learn music. And you can do that efficiently and with talent. Does that spill over into the rest of your learning ability?

  • 11:24:49

    MARCUSThere's some good studies that show very strong correlations between language-learning abilities and music-learning abilities. We don't really fully understand whether the causal relationship there is that the language -- you know, your ear for language helps you with your ear for music or vice versa, whether it's a kind of a genetic component. I think a good guess is that as you become a musician it makes you more sensitive to sound in general, and that helps you to learn foreign languages and probably vice versa.

  • 11:25:17

    ERARDWell, you had asked -- I thought you were going to go in a different direction with that question. I thought you were going to ask about how that spills over into the learning that the rest of us do...

  • 11:25:27


  • 11:25:28

    ERARD...if we don't -- and for me and for what I was looking at, you know, it -- I had to arrive at the notion that people possess a lot of variation in their brains, which means that they learn in very different ways...

  • 11:25:44

    REHMOf course, yeah.

  • 11:25:46

    ERARD...which means that method does matter. And that was actually something that I was hoping that Gary might talk about as well. You know, does -- and I'm very interested in learning how to play a musical instrument for the first time myself -- does method matter. In language learning there's a lot of differing opinion. Some of the hyper-polyglots will say that the method doesn't matter. It's just stick to the method that you choose. Other people will slalom back and forth between methods I think to give themselves some variation. So...

  • 11:26:18

    MARCUSI think the number one thing to remember if you're learning anything, whether it be a musical instrument or a language, is that practice alone doesn't make perfect. What Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice is really what you need. So you need to focus on your weaknesses. Regardless of what strategy you use, you can't just sit there rehearsing the things you already know. So there are guitarists that just play the same lick over and over again. They get really good at that lick, but they don't develop broader skills that make them better musicians.

  • 11:26:45

    MARCUSI think that, in general, you need a strategy where you're focusing on your weaknesses in order to be good. And there are different teaching styles. Say, in music, there's Suzuki learning, for example.

  • 11:26:59

    REHMSure, sure.

  • 11:27:00

    MARCUSI think what really matters there is the teacher more than the particular technique. So I...

  • 11:27:06

    REHMWhat about the instrument? Does it make a difference...

  • 11:27:10

    MARCUSOh, absolutely.

  • 11:27:11

    REHM...the piano, for example, versus the violin versus the guitar? Surely some are more difficult than others.

  • 11:27:21

    MARCUSIf I knew what I know now, I would've started with ukulele rather than a guitar. The ukulele is a lot more logical than a guitar in some ways. There are four strings that are tuned in a systematic way and the guitar is this pesky fifth string that's tuned differently. It makes it very hard for the human brain to remember where the notes are. And it's much harder on a guitar than it is on the piano. There's a sort of simple scheme on the piano. Once you can find the C note, you can find in any octave. But on a guitar, every string is different.

  • 11:27:46

    MARCUSSo every instrument, I think, has its own unique challenges. And some people's hands are, you know, better shaped maybe for a guitar than other people's hands.

  • 11:27:54

    REHMOkay. So take the same idea with language. Are there simply some languages easier to start with if you want to learn several languages? Are there some that make you feel good 'cause you can grasp them immediately and then go on?

  • 11:28:17

    ERARDYeah, it depends a lot on what your native language is. So learning Mandarin is very popular right now in the U.S. And that's actually a really good language to start with. Outside of the tones and outside of the writing system, which really takes a lot of time to learn how to do very, very well, the grammar is very easy and should be very familiar to native English speakers, oddly enough. And we wouldn't -- because English and Chinese share some interesting characteristics.

  • 11:28:48

    ERARDThere are some other languages, for instance like Indonesian and Hawaiian, where the syllables aren't very complex. There aren't very many consonants or vowels to learn. So it would be easy probably -- I don't want to go so far as to say regardless of your mother tongue but yeah, certainly.

  • 11:29:12

    REHMI would have thought that because the musicality of Chinese that that would have been very difficult for someone who speaks English to learn because one tone might mean one thing and another tone, using the same uttered syllable, might mean something else.

  • 11:29:40

    ERARDYeah, I mean, it can get you into some very awkward social...

  • 11:29:43

    REHMBig trouble.

  • 11:29:44

    ERARD...situations. And there's great stories.

  • 11:29:46

    REHMGive me an example.

  • 11:29:47

    ERARDOh, I think the word for cauliflower is the same as the word for syphilis, but with different tones. So you can get yourself into -- in restaurants asking for a sexually transmitted disease. But that doesn't really, you know, that doesn't happen very -- I mean, that's not a personal story.

  • 11:30:06

    REHMAll right. We've got so many callers here and we'll open the phones now, 800-433-8850. To Franklin, Mass. Good morning, Mark, you're on the air.

  • 11:30:23

    MARKGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:30:25


  • 11:30:26

    MARK(unintelligible) interesting. My question is actually more directed at Gary, but anybody is more than welcome to answer. Gary, my question is during your research for the book, when you were doing the research to try to come across (word?) to learning, did you come across anything where children are better learners because they haven't developed any preconceived notions or beliefs or social paradigms that are actively affecting the plasticity of the brain? So are they learning better because they don't know what they're learning?

  • 11:30:55

    MARCUSAbsolutely. Kids are at some advantages because of things that they don't know. The first thing that I would put is they don't know enough to be self conscious. So especially the youngest kids, they just play and they don't have high expectations. Whereas adults want it to sound like the song on the record the first day they play and adults often give up 'cause they're not playing it the way that it is on the record. And a kid will just keep doing some simple pattern until they get it right.

  • 11:31:16

    MARCUSSo I think that's maybe the number one difference between kids and adults is just the lack of self conscious is a really incredible benefit.

  • 11:31:23

    REHMSo how does an adult get past that, Gary?

  • 11:31:27

    MARCUSI think adults have to cut themselves slack. I think they have to make a conscious choice and say, I want to learn this thing that's difficult. And that will go for learning a language, too. You wouldn't expect that you're going to be able to speak French in seven days. I mean, I know there's lots of, you know, websites that promise you guitar or French in seven days, but it's not realistic. And you have to realize that you're talking about something that requires the whole brain to be rewired and that's going to take time. So you have to cut yourself the slack.

  • 11:31:51

    REHMIs the same thing true with language, Michael?

  • 11:31:54

    ERARDOh, yeah. I mean, there's this hypothesis that less is more -- hypothesis that adults who are much -- who are superior information processors that when it comes to learning a language they're actually trying to take in and process too much, and that the advantage that children have is probably the plasticity, but partly also the immature processing that's going on.

  • 11:32:19

    REHMThey're just not expecting much more than what they can do.

  • 11:32:24

    ERARDRight, right.

  • 11:32:25

    REHMThey're not -- you know, same thing with writing. Perhaps a young child, beginning a story might simply write, but the adult is self censoring as he or she goes.

  • 11:32:40

    MARCUSI actually got my start writing with a book called, I think, "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser. And a lot of that book was really about getting people over those blocks and making it clear that your first draft can be really lousy. It doesn't matter. You get it on the page and you start to revise it and then that's when it becomes great.

  • 11:32:56

    ERARDThe hyper-polyglots that I spoke with, a lot of them seem to have this Peter Pan quality such that they wanted to not be adults or not wanted to be treated as adults in a way in their languages. And sometimes sought that experience out in order to -- and you could attribute all kinds of psychological, you know, sort of tell stories about how they got that way. But I think that quality of openness and giving yourself slack is definitely true too.

  • 11:33:29

    REHMMichael Erard. His book is titled "Babel No More." And Gary Marcus. His new book is "Guitar Zero." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Lansing, Mich. Hi there, Anthony. You're on the air.

  • 11:33:51

    ANTHONYThanks for taking my call, Diane.

  • 11:33:53


  • 11:33:55

    ANTHONYSo I thought I'd comment on the learning process in younger students. I'm a professional musician. And the vast majority of my work is teaching a lot of younger students between middle school and high school ages how to play (word?) . I think one of the hardest parts of my job is getting my students to hear what I hear and getting them to hear inflection with greater specificity and the different nuances of music with greater specificity.

  • 11:34:29

    ANTHONYAnd I think even in my own playing in trying to hear a greater amount as a professional musician is still the greatest challenge, trying to hear more. And I can comment on just how the brain does rewire itself even for a professional musician and young students. You can sort of see these changes through time. And it is definitely greater with younger students, but professional musicians go through the same process.

  • 11:34:56

    MARCUSThere's a guy named Edwin Gordon who you may have heard of, but not all of the listeners will have, who talks about something called audiation, which is basically being able to imagine what you play before you play it and to have that sense of what other musicians are doing. I'm sure the same thing is important in language where some people they just sort of look at the spelling. But if you really have a mental image of what it's supposed to sound like you're going to be better off.

  • 11:35:20

    REHMAny thoughts there comparable in learning language, seeing or somehow hearing those words?

  • 11:35:29

    ERARDYeah, so there's been some suggestions that a very good predictor of foreign languag-ability is that ability to keep a string of foreign speech sounds in your head as you are on your way to producing them. One of the interesting methods that I saw someone use, one of the hyper-polyglots, was a method called shadowing where you listen to foreign language material, just some dialogues or something. And as you are hearing it. you attempt to say it simultaneously. And you do this while you are walking around, exercising with exaggerated gestures. And part of that, you know, works by getting you used to having people stare at you and look at you as if you're crazy.

  • 11:36:16

    ERARDBut the real...

  • 11:36:17

    MARCUSWhich helped with the guitar, I have to say.

  • 11:36:18

    REHMYeah, I'll bet. Oh, my gosh. But that's fascinating. I mean, you could do that with language. You couldn't very well do that with a musical instrument.

  • 11:36:32

    ERARDRight, carrying your grand piano.

  • 11:36:34

    MARCUSActually, if I can just say, there was a friend who was a teacher who teaches classical instruments. And she says what you should do is you should practice your piece when you're on the subway when you don't have your instrument. And one of the ways...

  • 11:36:46

    REHMIn your head.

  • 11:36:47

    MARCUSYou practice it in your head. And one of the ways you get good is you learn by doing that, where do you space out in a piece, for example, and that's a way to isolate the mistakes that you're making. It goes back to this idea of targeting practice. So anticipating the piece when you don't even have your instrument at hand can be a great thing.

  • 11:37:02

    REHMSame with language.

  • 11:37:04

    ERARDYeah, there was a Hungarian polyglot named Lomb Kato who recommended that you sort of run dialogs with yourself on the train or things like that. And that, you know, self talk in the foreign language definitely, definitely helps.

  • 11:37:20

    MARCUSCan I ask you a question, Michael? I suspect you talk about it in your book, but I haven't yet finished your book, which is does dreaming make a difference?

  • 11:37:27

    REHMAll right. Hold that thought. We'll come back to your question after we take a short break. I think we're going to get Gary's ukulele in here and see what happens. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:04

    REHMAnd we're going right back to the phones to Annapolis, N.C. Good morning, Jackie. Thanks for joining us.

  • 11:40:14

    JACKIEThank you, Diane. First time caller, very long time listener.

  • 11:40:18

    REHMOh, glad to have you with us.

  • 11:40:21

    JACKIEThank you. My mother was German and my father was American military and I was born and while I was 12 in Germany, not speaking English. And when we moved to the States 'cause I wanted to speak English, I didn't go back 'til I was 21 to visit my grandparents or my family. And by the end of the first day, I was shocked at what was coming out of my mouth because I had not spoken German in so many years. And didn't really remember very much of it, but with them not speaking any English, it just sort of started coming out. And by the end of three weeks, I was speaking as if I'd done it my entire life.

  • 11:41:00

    REHMYou were fluent.

  • 11:41:01

    ERARDWell, yeah, that's interesting. I've heard a lot of stories like that. And there's a lot of interesting stuff out there about really what it means to learn a -- or to lose a language, sorry, that we never really -- it's actually hard to lose a language than we think, certainly in a situation like that where you've grown up with a language, but also even high school Spanish.

  • 11:41:23

    REHMBecause it's retained somewhere in the brain.

  • 11:41:26

    ERARDBecause it's retained, yeah, exactly.

  • 11:41:28

    MARCUSThe thing to remember about memory and the brain is everything goes in there. The problem is usually getting it out. And what you need is the right clue or cue in order to get it out 'cause that's how the human brain is organized. So what's happening is you're suddenly getting cued for that language. It didn't really disappear. Not that much actually disappears. It's a question of how do I tap into what's already there.

  • 11:41:47

    ERARDAnd that's also a very strong emotional situation, right, returning to...

  • 11:41:51

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:41:51

    ERARD...to the homeland, yeah.

  • 11:41:53

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Smyrna Beach, Fla. Good morning, Brendan.

  • 11:41:59

    BRENDANHi, thanks for having me.

  • 11:42:01

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:42:04

    BRENDANSo I went to school for theater and philosophy, so I spent a little time sort of looking at language and, you know, like, what these really impressive speeches are and then kind of thinking about why. And I've noticed you see certain rhythmic patterns that come up over and over again in pop culture, you know, (unintelligible) day speech to the part two, the big speech from Independence Day.

  • 11:42:35

    BRENDANAnd you see certain (unintelligible) keep repeating themselves. And then when you look at music, you start seeing patterns like that, too, how pop music is built around kind of the same four chords over and over again, how the pentatonic scale seems to mesh really well just with (word?). And I was wondering if there's -- if you guys think there's an innate piece to that or if it's -- you know, for me it's a chicken and egg argument and you guys know more than that, so I was...

  • 11:43:04


  • 11:43:05

    MARCUSI think that some of its innate and some it's learned. So almost all cultures, for example, have some pentatonic scale, but they don't all have the same particular pentatonic scale. That means a scale with five notes that recur over and over again. But the notes can differ from one culture to the next and scales don't have to be that, so the major scale that we all know is seven notes. So I think there are probably some things that are hard wired that make some things easier to learn than others, but nothing specific about a particular piece of music or a particular linguistic pattern.

  • 11:43:34

    MARCUSOne other interesting thing there is that you might think of poetry and some lyrical music is actually a combination of language and music, and that might be why we enjoy it so much. There are two different brain systems that are getting stimulated.

  • 11:43:46

    ERARDMm-hmm. Yeah, no, I was not -- I was liking what he was saying.

  • 11:43:50


  • 11:43:50

    ERARDBut just in general, I mean, I like, you know, that thinking about how the brain has helped to evolve culture and how culture might have returned something to the way that the brain has evolved over human history.

  • 11:44:07

    REHMAll right. To Louisville, Ky. Chet, good morning.

  • 11:44:14

    CHETAppreciate you having on the air, Diane.

  • 11:44:17


  • 11:44:18

    CHETI was wondering if the acquisition of a tone language like various Chinese languages as a primary language, a first language, has any connection or correlation with later musical ability or vice versa if learning musical instrument or having, you know, early musical ability has a connection with a secondary addition of a tonal language.

  • 11:44:43

    MARCUSThere's some suggestive, but not decisive evidence. So it turns out, for example, that in China perfect pitch is much more common than it is in the United States. But then again even in conservatories in China, only about half the people have perfect pitch and they're, you know, chosen for their musical ability to get in there. So speaking a tone language doesn't guarantee that you'll have perfect pitch, but it might help you.

  • 11:45:02

    REHMOkay. From Facebook, James says, "John Paul the Second was the most widely traveled Pope, supposedly was a hyper-polyglot. I think he spoke 13 languages. Do the guests know if this is true?" Michael.

  • 11:45:24

    ERARDYeah, putting me in a hard position to have to try to debunk the Pope. I mean, I don't know what he was like in his private audiences or what he spoke in those. I think a lot of what we think of as his linguistic performances were these very large, you know, masses and speeches that he was giving. And those were probably pre-rehearsed and/or written down. So did he -- he was able to deliver in a lot of languages. Was he actually speaking them, I don't know.

  • 11:45:55

    REHMAnd second, "What do your guests think of language learning programs like Rosetta Stone or the Pimsleur Approach?" Gary.

  • 11:46:07

    MARCUSI think those things are a start, but there's probably no substitute for talking to a native speaker a lot. And immersion for both language and music is really, really important. So those programs can help you, but you really want to be immersed in a band or a linguistic scenario.

  • 11:46:20


  • 11:46:21

    ERARDImmersion, yeah, repetition, finding pleasure in repetition, you know, making your brain do stuff that it likes to do.

  • 11:46:28

    REHMBut does Rosetta Stone do exactly that?

  • 11:46:32

    MARCUSIt does the repetition part, but it doesn't have the social side or the interactive side.

  • 11:46:36

    REHMI see. Yeah.

  • 11:46:37

    MARCUSAnd there's some pretty good studies that show, for example, that if young kids watch a television program in a foreign language, they don't necessarily pick up anything as compared to if they get the same content, but it's more socially cued, it's more connected to what they're doing.

  • 11:46:49

    REHMAnd Jim, he sends an email, "Is it helpful to play music to my unborn baby?" Gary.

  • 11:46:57

    MARCUSI wouldn't go out of my way to do it. I don't think it could hurt. Babies can actually learn things in the womb. They can learn to recognize particular rhythms. But we don't have any great evidence that suggests there's a long-term benefit for that.

  • 11:47:11

    REHMThis goes back to something we were talking about earlier. George in Charlotte, S.C. says, "Is there an emotional component to learning novel tasks or a skill? For example, will a person who can tolerate the frustration of stumbling learn faster or better than those who do not?" Michael.

  • 11:47:40

    ERARDYeah, certainly, you know, how you feel about the task that you're doing makes it easier or harder to perform well and the anxiety that you have during performances will get in the way of retrieval. You know, a lot of my book and I think a lot of Gary's book, and what I like about both of these approaches though, is that it's getting learning out of the self, out of the conscious self and into the brain. So it's getting us away from, in your case it's practice, in my case it's more motivation and willpower.

  • 11:48:10

    ERARDWe have this larger sense that if people aren't successful, they must not want it badly enough or they must not be motivated enough to do it. And that's really not the whole story. That term will to plasticity in our culture, we over privilege the will part of that equation, I think, and we don't understand the plasticity part, how the brain actually changes.

  • 11:48:32

    REHMBut aren't there some times negative voices that can get in the way, Gary?

  • 11:48:38

    MARCUSOne of the things that I got to do in the course of writing this book was to interview different people who are teachers. And one of my favorite teachers is Michelle Horner, a Suzuki teacher. And she has this saying -- she actually teachers the parents. She figures you're going to practice more outside than you are at the classes, so it's really important to get the parents on board emotionally so that they don't discourage the kids. So she says to the parents, never ever correct your child unless they've made the same mistake at least three times. And that's all about keeping the whole process of learning fun. The minute it's not fun, people stop.

  • 11:49:11

    ERARDThere was a group that I visited. In the U.S. it's called the LEX Language Project. In Japan, it's called the HIPPO Family Project. And it's a language learning club whose motto is anyone can learn seven languages. And you play CDs in the background at home in 23 languages and then you get together as a group and you do dances and games and kind of a language karaoke. And as far as the language performances, you know, the accents were a little off, but the overall emotional tenor was you can do it, we love what you're doing, total acceptance, really fun.

  • 11:49:50

    REHMThat's great. And here is Eric. He's in Canton, Ohio. Good morning, Eric.

  • 11:49:58

    ERICHello there. How are you doing?

  • 11:49:59

    REHMGood, thank you.

  • 11:49:59

    ERICThank you for taking my call today.

  • 11:50:00


  • 11:50:01

    ERICVery interesting conversation. Several years ago, probably in the '90s, there was a study done. And I'm not sure if your one speaker refers to it in his book on language at all, where they did physiological studies on the brain and found that when we were born, supposedly we have thousands of speech centers. And as we get older, it focuses into the left brain and to one spot. But that as -- if you have a child or infant that grows up in a bilingual or multilingual family, that those speech centers do not close down as they do in those of us who come from a monolingual family. Therefore those children are more capable of picking up and learning foreign languages a lot easier and multiple languages.

  • 11:50:50

    ERARDYeah, that early exposure definitely matters. But interestingly I did an online survey of people who could speak six or more languages. And among the people who said that they could speak or that they knew, rather, more than 11, only a third of them came from a bilingual home environment. So their overall trajectory as language learners did not seem to be determined by the fact that they grew up with a lot of languages.

  • 11:51:18

    MARCUSI think for an instrument or for language often what really matters is the passion. So you can start with one language or in my case no musical talent whatsoever, and if you're dedicated enough, you can learn something.

  • 11:51:28

    REHMInteresting. To Brian in New Philadelphia, Ohio. Good morning to you, Brian.

  • 11:51:35

    BRIANGood morning.

  • 11:51:37

    REHMGo right ahead, sir.

  • 11:51:39

    BRIANI'd like to ask, I have a 2-year-old daughter who I'm interested in getting her playing the guitar. I play the guitar myself and she loves when I pick it up, loves music in general. What age can children actually cognitively start to understand what's happening and will it do any good to put the strings on the children's guitar I have and let her start going at it?

  • 11:52:01


  • 11:52:02

    MARCUSI don't think it could hurt. I would focus more on rhythm than anything else at that age. I wouldn't focus on playing complicated licks or anything like that. But anything you can do to develop a sense of rhythm is probably a good thing. There are things like the rhythmics or Dalcroze Method that are more about like just walking in time and maybe beating a drum in time. That might be easier than actually playing a guitar. But there's no reason why a 2-year-old can't get started.

  • 11:52:24

    REHMWhat about the recorder? That's the way both of my kids began and then went on to the piano. The recorder teachers you the difference between notes with the marching, with the rhythm, all the rest.

  • 11:52:41

    MARCUSIn my case, the recorder actually taught me the opposite. So I took recorder lessons in fourth grade. And when I took recorder lessons in fourth grade, I was so bad I couldn't play "Mary Had a Little Lamb." And the teacher suggested that my talents lay elsewhere. So for some people, the recorder is actually difficult. And I got the lesson that I couldn't do it and it took me about 35 years...

  • 11:53:03

    REHMOh, I see.

  • 11:53:03

    MARCUS...to realize that maybe I could actually do this.

  • 11:53:06

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's hear this little snippet.

  • 11:53:50

    REHMGary, tell us a little about this.

  • 11:53:53

    MARCUSMy first live singing performance. A friend of mine, Dave Barrett, or two friends of mine, Dave Barrett and Roger Greenawalt, encouraged me to sing a Beatles cover. And they were doing all the Beatles' songs on ukulele. And of course we had some thought about what would be the appropriate song. And since we all knew how hard it was going to be for me to sing on my own, it was obvious that "With a Little Help from My Friends" was the right thing to do. I have a link to that song up on my website, so you can hear my first studio performance "With a Little Help from My Friends."

  • 11:54:21

    REHMWhat did you have to do for yourself, to yourself to get that going?

  • 11:54:30

    MARCUSA lot of practice. And I would say that, you know, there's still room for improvement. I also picked a Ringo Starr song since he wasn't known for his singing ability.

  • 11:54:39

    REHMAll right. And let's take one more call. Let's go to Cal in Rochester, N.Y. Cal, you're on the air.

  • 11:54:52

    CALHey, there. This question is really about fluency and improvisation. So I have at various times of my life taught foreign language and music and I am now actually an instructor here in Rochester and I teach improvise comedy. And one of the things that I'm wondering, if the guests have something to comment about, is that part of what artistic fluency is about, is about making mistakes and not being judgmental...

  • 11:55:16

    MARCUSYes, and they say.

  • 11:55:18


  • 11:55:19

    CAL...as opposed to just memorizing technique. I wonder if they could talk about the differences and things they've noticed regarding that.

  • 11:55:25


  • 11:55:25

    ERARDYeah, I think improv comedy is great. I've done improv comedy in my classes as well. You know, I think it's kind of the gen X, gen Y toastmasters. Rather than focusing on delivery, you focus on the nature of the interaction and the ability to trade back and forth a series of, what do they call them, offers in order to set a scene, yeah.

  • 11:55:50

    MARCUSMy own musical learning has been different from a lot of people because I haven't played that many covers, notwithstanding the one that you heard a minute ago. And almost all of what I've done actually has been learning about improvisation. I get incredible pleasure from being able to make up my own music, even if it's not top 40 material. Just the chance to make up something new really keeps me going.

  • 11:56:09

    REHMAre you in the process, Michael, of learning any new languages?

  • 11:56:16

    ERARDYou know, I'm not. Really the thing that I'm most intrigued with doing right now is learning a -- picking up an instrument, 'cause I have a 2-year-old at home. And if we were living in a part of the country where there was a foreign language, you know, community, I might do that. But I think that's important for him to see me try to do something new. I want him to see what that process is like for me. I don't know if I'll -- how well I'll handle that certainly, but I want to model that and be able to, you know, include him in that.

  • 11:56:52

    REHMAnd what's the instrument?

  • 11:56:54

    ERARDOh, I don't know. I was going to ask Gary. Ukulele, it sounds like.

  • 11:56:57


  • 11:56:58

    REHMUkulele to start with. Well, what a fascinating conversation with both of you. Michael Erard, his book is titled "Babel No More." And Gary Marcus, his is "Guitar Zero." Thank you both very much.

  • 11:57:19

    MARCUSThank you.

  • 11:57:19

    ERARDThank you, Diane.

  • 11:57:19

    REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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