Why do children learn foreign languages so easily?

 

Have you ever wondered why children could learn a second language much easier than adults? How come they are like sponges and pick up a new language so easily?

The brain of children is DESIGNED to learn languages!

Of course, being born in a certain country doesn’t make us acquire its language naturally. Many scientists believe that biologically, the brain of young children are designed to absorb information and learn languages in the first few years of life. When we are little, we are open to learning NEW things- especially languages as we are more sensitive than ever to new sounds.

According to Dr Paul Thompson, a neurology professor at UCLA, children use the deep motor area of the brain, which is responsible for unconscious actions, to absorb languages. At this early stage of life, language is learned faster and retained better. Instead of consciously studying a new language like adults, children learn languages by being immersed in multilingual environments. They passively absorb the language through hearing, and thus unconsciously acquire the language naturally.

Here is an easier way to understand it. Think about it like this. When you listen to a song several times, you learn the lyrics and rhythm, whether you like it or not. Sometimes the song just stucks in our head and we cannot even get rid of it. This is unconscious learning, which is used by the children when learning languages. They are passively “absorbing” the information.

On the other hand, when you sit down and try to study for an upcoming exam, you are making a conscious effort to learn. Even if you are trying very hard to study a new language, it is just not as easy as passively receiving information effortlessly.

Oh, developmental advantage!

Also, the cognitive advantage may help catalyse the learning processes for children. As the brain develops, young children form neural connections at a very rapid pace, maximising the efficiency of learning.

Furthermore, brain plasticity, which is the ability of the brain to alter its structure with use and demand, is maximal as a fetus, allowing children to become more proficient at acquiring and retaining languages. These unique characteristics of babies’ brain allow them to learn languages at a faster rate.

 

And then you lost your ABILITY…

Around one year of age, our brain’s capacity for change starts to decrease. As the baby gradually absorbs enough talking and gets familiar with the sound of language his parents are speaking, the brain slowly starting to lose the ability to recognise the sounds of other languages.

According to researches, after puberty, the language is not learned through the centres specialised for language learning as they stop growing rapidly. Instead, the language is learned through the systems intended for general learning, which is much slower and less efficient. Age-associated changes in brain structure and plasticity make language acquisition more difficult for older people.

 

Self-consciousness…

Another obvious reason as to why children learn new languages easily is their decreased self-consciousness. Young children are not afraid of making mistakes or mispronouncing word like adults do. Indeed, as young children have not yet developed any negative attitudes about learning a second language, they are not afraid of talking with others in their second language. They even take pride in practising out loud, even if they may sound dumb.

Did you know, by speaking out loud, it is beneficial in helping the brain absorb information! On the other hand, making mistakes and sounding foolish usually make most adults extremely anxious.

Is it really easier for kids though?

Nevertheless, some scientists believe that children learn languages differently but not necessarily easier than adults. Children indeed acquire a language through unconscious actions. In other words, children can speak another language without really thinking about it. That is why it often seems that children pick up words and phrases without much effort. On the other hand, adults are more capable of complex and intellectual learning.

 

In the end, it is never too late to learn a new language. The sooner you start, the better you will be at it!

 

Further Readings:

Neuroplasticity as a function of second language learning

Brain plasticity and second language learning

 


2 Responses to “Why do children learn foreign languages so easily?”

  1. Calandra Grima says:

    Children have such an incredible ability to pick up new languages due to their brain plasticity, so it is important that young children are given the opportunity to pick up language in its critical developmental period.

    The science of language learning is incredibly interesting! Thank you for sharing this with us.

  2. Danyang Su says:

    Thank you for this blog! As an international student whose mother tongue is not English, language has always been the biggest obstacle in my study and life. I have always been afraid of speaking English in front of many people. This may be the biggest problem. I have always envied people who can learn multiple languages at a very young age. Your article gave me a lot of encouragement!