By Tori Galatro
It’s a commonly held belief that children learn languages faster than adults. For the most part, science and research support this belief. However, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. For example, why do children learn languages faster? How much faster do they learn them? Do they learn them faster because of their environment, their brain chemistry, or some combination of both? Is it possible for adults to learn the same way children do? Let’s look at some of the factors that attempt to answer these fascinating questions.
Children have environmental advantages when learning language that most adults don’t have. Very young children aren’t formally instructed in language the way adults and older children are. They learn by being immersed in multilingual environments. They passively “absorb” the language through contact. When formally instructed, it is through games and songs, not verb conjugation and exams. In fact, adults also learn much faster through immersion, but the cost of immersion is much higher for adults than it is for children. Children have virtually no responsibilities in life, so they have the time and energy to spend hours in environments that challenge their communication skills. Most adults don’t have that luxury.
Children are also better candidates for immersive language learning because they have fewer inhibitions. It’s much easier to learn a language if you’re comfortable making mistakes and sounding foolish, a hurdle that makes most adults extremely anxious. Also, the standard of language competence is much lower for children than it is for adults. They aren’t judged the way adults are so they don’t receive, or give themselves, as much negative feedback when they make mistakes. They also aren’t tested the way an older child would be, so there is less pressure. The learning process is more playful and natural.
As an adult, if you move to a foreign country and nobody speaks your language, you’ll quickly start to learn the new language because you’re motivated to communicate and connect with others. But few adults willingly put themselves in that situation. Young children are often exposed to language in such a situation, but they don’t need to deliberate the merits of their decision. They don’t even know they are learning a new language or know how it may serve them later in life. They just think, “this is how I talk to Dad” or “this is how I talk to my classmate”. It’s the pure desire to communicate that drives the learning.
Environmental advantages may be important, but it’s hard to deny the cognitive advantage very young children have when learning new languages. Babies and very young children form neural connections at a rapid pace. As the brain develops, it becomes more specialized, reinforcing the neural pathways that are regularly used. This is a good thing because it makes the brain more efficient, but it also makes learning new things more challenging. That’s why those who learn a language at a very young age have the accent of a native speaker. Later in life, those neural shortcuts our brains have created to increase efficiency force us to fall back on the sounds, or phonemes, of languages we already know.
It is because of the brain’s elasticity and rapid neural formation that babies and young children are able to learn languages at a faster rate. This is sometimes referred to as the “critical period”. It is theorized that if a child does not learn any language, including non-verbal languages, during this time period that they may never be able to learn any language, because the necessary neural foundation for it has been permanently damaged. We can’t know the answer to this question because testing it would be inhumane.
It’s difficult for us to know just how important these factors are when judging the speed of child language learning against the speed of adult language learning. Whatever the primary factor, there are so many advantages to learning languages as a child that it would be a shame not to take advantage of those critical years.
To learn more about how you can enroll your preschooler in a fully immersive bilingual environment, where they can learn languages naturally, visit Tessa International School in Hoboken.