Why Do Children Learn Foreign Languages So Easily?

Many researchers believe that learning foreign language before the puberty and even better earlier allows children to speak more fluently, almost like native speakers.  In addition, learning more than one language at early age improves lifelong ability to communicate with others and contributes to cognitive development and cultural awareness.

Many studies suggest that the best time to introduce a foreign language is before the age of ten. At this early stage of life language is learned and acquired faster, retained better, and spoken with exceptional pronunciation. It is widely accepted that the younger the learners, the more successful they are at imitating new sounds. This is because our brain is more open to new sounds (words) before adolescence. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult for older learners to speak a new language without having a “foreign” accent.

Although some findings have indicated that young child up to the age of 5 can process up to five languages, experts mostly agree that a bilingual approach is best for young children.  Nowadays, many children grow up in bilingual families and environments and thus acquire two languages as their first ones. All around the world, children successfully learn two languages at the same time, starting from birth. Studies have demonstrated that bilingual infants can discriminate and separate their two languages even before they speak their first word. In addition, they are starting to build sound representations for both languages during the first year of life. Some experts believe that infants are born with the capacity to distinguish speech-sound contrasts from all of the worlds’ languages, while the experience of listening to one language (in contrast to another) helps to maintain distinctions between them.

Both scientific and popular literature often discuss the effects of speaking multiple languages over one language on brain functioning and cognition. As available data imply, bilingual people have enhanced cognitive processing in comparison with monolinguals due to the constant switching from one language to another. This switch is assumed to be sustained by functional and anatomical changes in the brain, suggesting that there are structural and functional neuronal differences between these individuals. More precisely, multiple language speakers seem to undergo plastic changes in certain brain networks enabling them to handle control of multiple languages.

Some scientists believe that children learn language differently but not necessary easier than adults. As they point out, children acquire a language by using the same parts of the brain as the parts that control unconscious actions. This is why it often seems that children pick up words and phrases without much effort. On the other hand, adults are more capable for complex and intellectual learning.  Other researchers consider that our brain is set up to acquire language naturally during childhood and early adolescence. Apart from possible predispositions in the brain, children seem to be more motivated to learn languages compared to adults: they devote much more time to learning new words and phrases.

Language consists of four dimensions: the sound system (i.e., the phonology), the meanings system (the semantics), the world formation rules (the morphology), and the sentence formation rules (the syntax). The different subsystems involved in the acquisition of a language are assumed to have differences in developmental progression and the optimal period for acquiring them.

For instance, babies begin life with a tendency for phonology acquisition. It is commonly considered that the phonetic segment, as the smallest segment in a language, varies between children and adults, which might explain why children learn language differently and most probably easier. Neurological studies have indicated differences between auditory processing in children and adults due to the differences in cortical sequences of brain hemispheres. One recent study examined the ability of Dutch-speaking adults and 9-year old children to rapidly recite novel word sequences, which were in accordance with the phonotactics of Dutch language. Phonotatics refer to the phonological rules for the sequences that can occur in a language. This study has shown that children started learning new phonotactics effectively on the first day of the experiment, while it took adults 2 days to get the same results.

Even early research suggested that language is learned differently before and after the onset of puberty. Namely, in the late 1960s, one scientist proposed that language can only be acquired during the critical period, defined as the period between birth and puberty. At this life stage, maturational and experiential forces direct the left brain hemisphere toward gradual specialization for language. This process is assumed to be finalized before puberty, regardless of how complete the language acquisition is. This means that after puberty the language is not learned through the neural systems specialized for language learning, but through the mechanisms intended for general learning.

Based on these findings, scientists raised the question, “Does this critical period for language learning extend to acquisition of a second language as well”? A group of researchers tested the English proficiency acquired by native Chinese and Korean speakers who were 3 to 39 years of age at the time of arrival to the United States and who had lived in the USA between 3 and 26 years prior to testing. The test was based on investigating the efficiency of using various English grammar structures. The results revealed a clear advantage for earlier arrivals. Namely, up until puberty, performance in the test linearly correlated with the age of arrival, while after puberty the performance was unrelated to the age at arrival and, more importantly, it was quite low. Therefore, this study demonstrated that children are better learners of a second language as well as their native language, reaching higher levels of proficiency.

To sum up, children may not be better at learning languages in terms of inputting effort and dedicating time towards this aim, but they are certainly better than adults at acquiring the correct grammatical and phonetic structure of a foreign language. Age-associated changes in brain structure and plasticity make the task of learning a foreign language more difficult for older people as their brains process information differently.


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Image via sasint/Pixabay.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).
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