Why do children learn foreign languages ​​so easily?

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Many researchers believe that learning a foreign language before puberty and even better earlier allows children to speak more fluently, almost like native speakers. Additionally, learning more than one language at an early age improves the ability to communicate with others throughout life 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 in life, language is learned and acquired more quickly, better retained, and spoken with exceptional pronunciation. It is widely believed that the younger the learners, the more successful they are in 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 children up to age 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. All over the world, children are successfully learning two languages ​​at the same time, right from birth. Studies have shown that bilingual infants can discriminate and separate their two languages ​​even before they utter their first word. Moreover, they begin to construct sound representations for both languages ​​during the first year of life. Some experts believe that infants are born with the ability to distinguish the speech-sound contrasts of all the world’s languages, while the experience of listening to one language (as opposed to another) helps maintain distinctions between them.

Scientific and popular literature often discusses the effects of speaking multiple languages ​​over one language on brain function and cognition. As the available data indicate, bilinguals have improved cognitive processing compared to monolinguals due to constant switching between languages. This change is thought to be supported by functional and anatomical changes in the brain, suggesting that there are structural and functional neural differences between these individuals. Specifically, speakers of multiple languages ​​appear to experience plastic changes in certain brain networks that allow them to manage control of multiple languages.

Some scientists believe that children learn language differently but not necessarily more easily than adults. As they point out, children acquire language using the same parts of the brain as the parts that control unconscious actions. This is why it often seems that children grasp words and sentences without much effort. On the other hand, adults are more capable of complex and intellectual learning. Other researchers consider that our brain is wired to naturally acquire language during childhood and early adolescence. Apart from possible cerebral predispositions, children seem to be more motivated to learn languages ​​than adults: they spend much more time learning new words and phrases.

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

For example, babies begin life with a tendency to acquire phonology. The phonetic segment, as the smallest segment of a language, is generally considered to vary between children and adults, which could explain why children learn language differently and most likely more easily. Neurological studies have indicated differences between auditory processing in children and adults due to differences in the cortical sequences of the cerebral hemispheres. A recent study examined the ability of Dutch-speaking adults and 9-year-old children to quickly recite new word sequences, consistent with Dutch language phonotactics. Phonotatics refers to the phonological rules of sequences that can appear in a language. This study showed that the children began to learn new phonotactics effectively from the first day of the experiment, whereas it took 2 days for the adults to obtain the same results.

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

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

In summary, children may not be better at learning languages ​​in terms of the effort and time spent on this goal, but they are certainly better than adults at acquiring the correct grammatical and phonetic structure of a foreign language. . Age-related changes in the structure and plasticity of the brain make the task of learning a foreign language more difficult for older people because their brains process information differently.

The references

Ghasemi, B., Hashemi, M. (2011). Learning foreign languages ​​during childhood. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. 28: 872-876. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.11.160

Werker, JF, Byers-Heinlein, K. (2008). Bilingualism in early childhood: first steps in perception and understanding. Trends in cognitive science. 12(4): 144-151. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2008.01.008.

Van de Putte, E., De Baene, W., García-Pentón, L., Woumans, E., Dijkgraaf, A., Duyck, W. (2017). Anatomical and functional changes in the brain after training in simultaneous interpretation: a longitudinal study. Cortex. 99: 243-257. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2017.11.024

Nora, A., Karvonen, L., Renvall, H., Parviainen, T., Kim, JY, Service, E, Salmelin, R. (2017). Children show right-lateralized effects of learning the form of spoken words. PLoS One. 12(2): e0171034. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0171034

Smalle, EHM, Muylle, M., Szmalec, A., Duyck, W. (2017). The different time course of learning phonotactic constraints in children and adults: evidence from speech errors. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, memory and cognition. 43(11): 1821-1827. doi: 10.1037/xlm0000405

Johnson, JS, Newport, EL (1989). Effects of the critical period in second language learning: the influence of maturation state on the acquisition of English as a second language. Cognitive psychology. 21(1): 60-99. PMID: 2920538

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