A child grows up in a bilingual household. When the toddler is thirsty and asks for a drink, Mom hands her a cup and says, “Do you want milk?” while Dad might ask, “Quieres leche?” In this environment, the child will most likely be fluent in both languages because she was introduced to them at a formative age. But is it harder to learn a language at a later age?
Some researchers believe so. It all has to do with the hardwiring of our brains or what neuroscientists like to call plasticity. As we acquire new skills, whether it is driving a car, mastering a new computer program, or studying another language, our brain is making associations within its neural circuitry that links the novel applications to past memories and experiences. The more we perform the new skill, the more deeply seated the association is made in our brains. In contrast, the less often we perform the new skill, the more likely it is that we will not be very good at it and eventually lose it. It is clearly the ‘use it or lose it’ scenario at work with brain plasticity.
Elaine Shiver, for the Intercultural Development Research Association reports that children approach language learning naturally, through an instinctive process out of the need to communicate. This ‘ear’ for language starts early. Researchers have found that infants start out life as an open book, and are able to distinguish sounds from all languages.
However, by six months old, they are no longer able to distinguish sounds outside of their native language. Even then, the infant needs repeated exposure to the sounds of their own language in order to hardwire it in. When a child hears two languages spoken at home, they will learn both simultaneously. Even at a later age, a young child can pick up a second or third language more easily because the window of opportunity for development is still open.
In the Everyday Life column of the Global Post, Suzanne Robin explains three different factors that make learning another language easier for children, including that young children do not have as intense need to communicate well as older children and adults do, so they are not concerned with grammar and large vocabulary sets. Also, they are not afraid of experimenting and making mistakes, so they are not as self-conscious as adults.
However, there are opposing views to the ‘language is learned best only in childhood’ theory. Norman Doidge, psychiatrist, researcher, and contributor to The Neuroplasticity Revolution says that according to the old view on language acquisition, the critical period to learn a language occurs during infancy through childhood, ending at onset of adolescents. The thought was our brains are too rigid to learn a new language in adulthood. However Doidge explains that an “over-learned” activity in the brain will always win when there are competing messages. Not because the language development period is over, but simply because you are getting better at your native tongue.
Doidge believes that true immersion will take of this and will “silent the tyranny of the mother tongue.” He further feels that dragging out the learning process of a language learner only makes it harder for the new language to be picked up. As such, Doidge is a staunch supporter in complete immersion programs for new immigrants to an adopted country.
Psychologist Damon Verial, also of the Global Post, reports that some researchers contend how children exposed to more than one language limits the amount of vocabulary that can be learned in a given time in either language. Children may be at risk for stressing the brain cognitively by having to navigate the complexities of both languages. They also feel that there could be future problems with cultural identity, particularly in the teen years, as language and culture are linked.
Benny Lewis, (a.k.a. Benny the Irish Polyglot and ESL teacher), feels that adults can be better language learners than children because adults already have down many of the basics needed to communicate, including body gestures, sound differentiation, grammatical structures, and most importantly, motivation. He states that an adult, even into old age, can learn a new language just as well as child, or even better, as long as he or she applies the skill in earnest.
At what age did you learn a second language?
Written by Marlene Martzke for English Classes by Skype