Never Too Late?

There’s a phrase that exists in the American/English language: “It’s never too late to [fill in some goal or action].” I don’t know if similar phraseology exists in other languages, but its prevalence in today’s society is indicative of a mindset that Americans can do anything, even if it seems too late. After all, late as it was, didn’t the U.S. enter World War II and turn the tide, so to speak? Didn’t we come late to rocketry, but become the first to put astronauts on the moon? And I have to admit that there are a number of other examples.

BUT… all too many people fail to realize that there are just as many examples of “too little, too late,” and I have the feeling that, as a result of a society that has become ever more one of instant gratification, just-in-time supply deliveries, and the up-and-coming 3D print-it-yourself technology, we’re losing sight of too many areas where it may well become “too late.

In some areas, we accept, if grudgingly, that “too late” exists. If a child doesn’t learn a second language young, that child will never learn to speak the language without an accent. If you don’t master the violin by age 13-14, you’ll never be a concertmaster/mistress. At some point, it is too late even for a professional athlete to continue performing at a high level. In other areas, we don’t seem to get it at all. Remedial writing instruction for college students [except for foreign students who write well in their own language] is largely useless. Those skills have to be learned close to the time of puberty, yet universities pour billions of dollars into such courses.

The idea of it never being too late is more pronounced in socio-political issues. Gun violence at American schools, now at even grade schools and middle schools, not just colleges and high schools, is continuing to increase to the point that I have to question if it is not too late to ever reduce the carnage. With close to 400 million firearms in circulation, with popular opposition over any control whatsoever of who can use weapons and under what conditions, and a growing lack of self-discipline by a growing percentage of the American public, is there really any way the violence and deaths can be reduced?

Global warming is continuing, despite recent evidence of a slight decrease in solar radiation received by the entire earth. Billions of years ago, Venus and earth were more similar, until runaway global warming turned Venus into a hothouse torrid enough that lead can melt in places on its surface. Another study just revealed that the firn ice of Greenland has either reached or is close to reaching its capability for absorbing meltwater, and further increases in meltwater could lead to the melting of the entire icecap of Greenland. How long before it’s too late to save much of Florida and U.S. coastal cities?

In the end, there is a difference between situations where “it’s never too late”; situations where it soon will be too late; and situations where it’s already too late. But because of the human tendencies to procrastinate and to demand just one position, maybe, just maybe, in cases where there’s any doubt at all we ought to take the default position that, if we don’t do something now, all too soon it will be too late.

14 thoughts on “Never Too Late?”

  1. John Prigent says:

    I don’t disagree with your conclusions, but that ‘if a child doesn’t learn a second language young, that child will never learn to speak the language without an accent’ is wrong. I suspect that it should be stated as ‘if a child learns a second language while young it will be able to learn to speak more languages like a native’. I write from experience. As a youngster in England I learnt French, both from visitors to our house and on holiday with the family in Normandy. (I still speak Norman French with a Breton accent and use the local dialect words instead of the ‘officially correct’ ones.) In my 40s, on business in East Africa I set out to learn some Kiswahili, at least enough to use polite greetings, get a taxi, order a drink, that kind of thing. When I was dragooned into making a speech to the factory’s football team that had just won the regional championship I was told on no account to start in Kiswahili – because I spoke like a local and no-one would believe that I had such a limited vocabulary, they’d think I was rude to switch to English after an impeccably polite opening in their own language. So just maybe exposure to another language while young can trigger a switch in the brain that makes it easier to copy accents and intonations in other languages?

  2. JakeB says:

    If you were to speak long enough in Kiswahili, it would almost certainly become clear that you weren’t a native speaker. The issue is that we massively overlearn the muscle memory for the pronunciation of phonemes or phoneme combinations . . . it’s been estimated that an 18-year old has spoken a billion words. So if you learn more than one language early enough, you can learn the other set of movements well enough that it’s nearly indistinguishable (although there is some research suggesting that noone is truly perfectly bilingual). There’s a difference between learning ritual phrases and speaking where one’s actually creating sentences as one speaks that would eventually give you away, if you see what I mean.

    1. John Prigent says:

      Good point, Jake! But I was fluent enough to fool people who struck up conversations with me in Kiswahili, not just learning a few phrases – sorry if I didn’t make that clear. Anyway, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the observation that exposure to a second language early teaches one to make the sounds of that language. I suggest that it can also give the ability to learn and reproduce the sounds of more languages in later life.

  3. JakeB says:

    p.s. of course, with things these days, maybe it’s better to say an 18-year-old will have spoken 500 million words, and texted another 500 million.

  4. Lourain says:

    It may be to late to prevent catastrophic climate-change effects. Global systems have tremendous inertia..rather like trying to stop a mile-long coal train going 60 mph to avoid hitting a vehicle at a train crossing.
    Personally, I do not intend to invest in Florida real estate.

  5. Plovdiv says:

    I think it is too late to stop global warming completely, but not too late to lessen its effects. I just wish our esteemed politicians, both in the UK and USA would stop procrastinating, reach a compromise between party positions and work together. You mentioned the war, and how did we win it? By working together, both militarily and politically. Britain had a coalition government to carry us through the war, yet I cannot see the same spirit of solidarity today. It’s a great shame, both for the countries mentioned and the rest of humanity.

  6. dcody says:

    I agree sir, and I’d like to second what Lourain said about Floridian real estate. Much of the worlds coastal areas are totally screwed, and I think from what I’ve been reading over on sciencedaily for the last few years, that’s it’s too late to save them already, though I could be wrong. I think I read on there a few months ago that as early as 10 years from now much of southern Florida will be inundated.

  7. Steve says:

    My favorite is the parent who brings in their child after thirteen years of neglect and abuse and says, “I just can’t take it anymore! You need to fix him! Give him a pill or somethin'”.

  8. Wine Guy says:

    Since the media demands that politicians and other leader (business, sports, etc.) be infallible and immutable – and wrongly asserts that most of the population demands the same thing – I don’t foresee any real change in the U.S. culture.

    Right now, I’d vote for someone who actually said, “I don’t know what the answer is. I’ll get the facts and make the best effort I can. If what I try doesn’t work, then I’ll try something else.”

    And anyone with sense knows that sometimes is actually is “too little, too late.” I have talks with patients all the time about their failing hearts/kidneys/livers/brains/etc.

    If they didn’t want to be on a dozen meds/transplant list/dialysis/etc., then they should’ve paid attention for the first 30-40 years that they were abusing or neglecting themselves.

    Then again, facing reality has always been a trait to which humans merely pay lip service.

  9. Rehcra says:

    When do you use the phrase “It’s never too late.”? For me, I have always seen it as the proper response to exactly the sentiment displayed here. When you feel like not doing something because you missed your golden opportunity or when you should have already did something this phrase is a way of saying “that’s no excuse not to (get the job done/ do the right thing) do it.”


  10. Wine Guy says:

    Rehcra: You’re right. “It’s never too late” does mean (or SHOULD mean) “Oh, crap! Even though I’ve really screwed up, I’ll try my best to ameliorate the (possibly enormous) problem I’ve created by my action or non-action.”

    I don’t think that the phrase or the sentiment should give a person a free pass towards forgiveness without some restitution on their part or that it should in any way reduce the person’s responsibility, however.

    1. JakeB says:

      Of course I can’t help but remember Bishop Mpambani’s story:

      “Peter and John are friends. It happened that Peter stole a bicycle from John, and then after three weeks Peter came to John saying, John let’s talk about reconciliation. And then John said, I donít think we need talk about reconciliation at the present moment until you bring back my bicycle. Where is my bicycle? And Peter said, No, let us forget about the bicycle, let us talk about reconciliation. And then John said, We cannot talk about reconciliation until my bicycle is back.”

  11. R. Hamilton says:

    When the bulk of implied answer is more regulation, perhaps it is never too late, because never is the ideal time for more regulation.

    Naturally there are occasional and minimalist exceptions, but the premise that more rules are needed as complexity or population increases seems a bit flawed, if only in the limits-of-growth sense.

    The rules presently in place are far too much to be consistently enforced, leaving too much room for discretion, i.e. patronage (corruption), in enforcement. They are also too much for anyone to actually understand, let alone know whether they are in compliance.

    If the real problem is largely a decline in self-discipline, then how about a big push for _private_ institutions to convey that idea to prospective parents? Maybe we need more religion, not as tyranny but reminding us of our duties to one another.

  12. Wayne Kernochan says:

    I have two contributions. The first is from the wonderful musical The Boyfriend (abbreviated):

    It’s never too late to have a fling
    For Autumn is just as nice as Spring
    And it’s never too late to fall in love
    Boop-a-Doop, Boop-a-Doop, Boop-a-Doop
    It’s never too late to wink an eye
    I’ll do it until the day I die
    And it’s never too late to fall in love
    Boop-a-Doop, Boop-a-Doop, Boop-a-Doop

    If they say that I’m too old for you
    Then I shall answer “Why, sir,
    One never drinks the wine that’s new
    The old wine tastes much nicer”

    It’s never too late to whisper words
    Concerning the way of bees and birds
    And it’s never too late to fall in love
    Whack-a-do, Whack-a-do, Whack-a-do
    It’s never too late to flirt and spoon
    A fiddle that’s old is more in tune
    And it’s never too late to fall in love
    Whack-a-do, Whack-a-do, Whack-a-do

    The modern artists of today
    May paint their picture faster
    But when it comes to skill, I say
    You can’t beat an old master

    It’s never too late to bill and coo
    At any age one and one make two
    And it’s never too late to fall in
    Never too late to fall in
    Never too late to fall in

    It’s never too late to blow a kiss
    Especially at a time like this
    And it’s never too late to fall in love
    Vo-de-o, Vo-de-o, Vo-de-o
    It’s never too late for fun and larks
    A jolly old flame has lots of sparks
    And it’s never too late to fall in love
    Vo-de-o, Vo-de-o, Vo-de-o

    The modern buildings that you see
    Are often most alarming
    But I am sure that you’ll agree
    A ruin can be charming

    It’s never too late to be a beau
    Experience counts a lot, you know
    And it’s never too late to fall in
    Never too late to fall in
    Never too late to fall in

    And for Valentine’s Day, but otherwise off-topic:

    I could be happy with you,
    If you could be happy with me.
    I’d be contented to live anywhere,
    What would I care,
    As long as you were there,
    Skies may not always be blue,
    But one thing is sure as can be, I know that
    I could be happy with you, my darling,
    If you could be happy with me.

    More seriously: A recent research-summary paper by James Hansen (I’ve attempted to summarize on my blog, concludes that, no matter what, there is no serious risk of a “runaway greenhouse effect” and Venus for the next 900,000 years. However, the rest of his news is pretty much dismal. Approximately 2.3 degrees C of global warming is now baked in no matter what we do. Unless we reserve about 60% of today’s global fossil-fuel reserves (including natural gas, coal, oil, tar sands, oil shale, and coal) to never be used (more exactly, to not be used for the next 2,000 years or so) we reach what I call “worst consequences”, which he defines as a “wet-bulb temperature in summer that is not survivable outdoors except briefly or in mountainous regions”. He notes also that Arctic sea ice melt and therefore perhaps 100 feet of sea rise is now inevitable. He omits other implications: moving northward of subtropical drought conditions plus extremely violent weather (thus an area that saw maximum winds of 80 mph today might see 130-140 mph 90 years from now, and so on, excessive rain that renders places like Alaska unsuitable for future farming except at high cost, and the possibility of acid release from iron blooms in the sea that make the air periodically toxic next to the sea — you breathe it, you die. That leaves, pretty much, permafrost areas that will be turning into mosquito-infested peat swamps in Northern Canada and Siberia. Under “worst consequences”, I find it hard to imagine a scenario in which 90-95% of the world’s food supply would not be destroyed over the next 250 years, if worst consequences arrive.

    That’s the answer, by the way, to “if we can’t avoid it, let’s give up.” Our present “business as usual” leads to exponentially increasing damage up to the point of “worst consequences”. Yes, we’ve baked in some horrendous consequences now; the more we delay, the worse the consequences get, much worse and much faster.

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