Think your high school Spanish class came a decade too late for you?
Language researchers would probably agree that your second language acquisition would have been more easily-achieved had you started before age five.
There’s an abundance of research out there confirming that young kids pick up languages more easily than adults. The relative ease with which children learn a second language may have something to do with a linguistic theory called “language transfer.”
This term refers to the learner’s attempts to apply the rules, forms and sentence-structures of their native language to the new language they’re trying to learn. Transfer is an important factor in language learning at any age, but studies suggest that children have an easier time with language transfer because they’re still in the process of learning their first or native language. When we learn a language, we begin by transferring sounds and meanings, as well as incorporating various usage rules. As we gain more experience with the new language, the role of transfer typically diminishes. “The more children learn about a foreign language, the more they understand about their own language,” said Nancy Rhodes, Director of Foreign Language Education at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C. Children use what they learn in one language to reinforce concepts and terms they’ve learned in another, while older folks–even adolescents–have to contend with years of thinking and speaking in their first language.
For young kids, language learning is intuitive and natural. What educators call a “window of opportunity” may be what experts say is a greater neural and linguistic plasticity, which allows kids to acquire language with relative ease and speed. Researchers led by neurologist Dr. Andrea Mechelli studied the brain images of bilinguals and concluded that learning a foreign language at any age increases the grey matter density in the brain, according to a 2007 New York Times article. Though learning a foreign language at any age adds to grey matter density, the most significant advantage exists for people who acquired that language before age five.
Learning a new language as an adolescent can be just as hard as learning it as an adult, but memorizing new sets of vocabulary and grammar rules as a teen could have helped your SAT scores.
The 2007 College Bound Seniors report, issued by the SAT-administering College Board, reported the significant benefits of studying a foreign language for four or more years: students scored an average 140 points (out of 800) higher on the Critical Reading section than students with only two semesters of foreign language, 150 points higher on Writing, and another 140 points more in the Math section. And if the SAT-bolstering benefit isn’t convincing enough, Web MD reports that learning multiple languages can ultimately delay the onset of dementia by nearly four years in elderly patients. So don’t give up hope on building up your own grey matter. Researchers are finding that, just because kids can learn a new language quicker or easier than adults, doesn’t mean that adults are unable to.
Although children may have an advantage in achieving native-like fluency in the long run, adults actually learn languages in their early stages faster than kids, according to a study comparing the rate of second language acquisition. An often-cited 1979 study showed that attaining a working ability to communicate in a new language was more rapid for an adult than for a child. Linguists and educators have said that, due to experience and deeply rooted connections to their native language, adults find it hard to mimic never-before heard sounds in other languages. Children, on the other hand, are natural copycats, often delighting in repeating and mimicking sounds and words. Kids can pick up slight differences in tones and sound, which can be helpful when imitating a natural-sounding, native-like accent that may take adolescents and adults years of practice to achieve. Half the world speaks a tone language, or a language that uses the same words–spoken in a different pitch or tone–to mean different things. Mandarin Chinese, the most difficult to learn for English speakers, is a tone language, but a study conducted by researchers from UCLA and the University of Hong Kong shows that even adults with significant exposure to the language in childhood can end up speaking like a native.
Learning a language in the typical classroom, where the instruction often happens in English as you stumble over new words and phrases for an hour at a time, is very different than the way you picked up new words as a kid. Immersion–where all or nearly all of the verbal inputs a person receives are in the language they’re trying to learn–can be enormously helpful for learning a new language quickly and in a manner that lasts. Linguists suggest that, if you can’t study abroad in a place where you’re immersed in the language, consistently exploring the language may be your next best bet. Using new words and phrases in everyday situations and hearing them used around you really helps to get familiar with a language outside of one-hour classes.
So stick with your foreign language classes in college or sign-up for them as an elective and your grey matter will thank you.