In our rapidly globalizing world, the ability to communicate across borders and cultures is increasingly important. Early language learning provides some great advantages, and as parents and educators, we have a crucial role in fostering language acquisition skills in young children.
From the moment a child is born, their brain embarks on a remarkable journey of growth and development. Babies and young children have limitless neuroplasticity; as they constantly absorb new information from their surroundings, they form up to one million neural connections per second! Their neuroplasticity allows children to learn languages at a very fast rate.
But, as we get older, our brains become more specialized, reinforcing the neural pathways that we regularly use and making it difficult to create new ones. Because of this, it’s much more challenging for teenagers and adults to learn a second language. But, on the other hand, learning languages at a young age is found to increase neuroplasticity, promoting lifelong learning abilities and cognitive health.
Critical Period for Language Learning
In 1967, renowned linguist and neurologist Eric Lenneberg proposed the critical period hypothesis, which suggests that there is a specific window of opportunity for language learning that closes around puberty. According to Lenneberg, if a child isn’t exposed to new languages before this critical period ends, native-like proficiency is much more difficult, or even impossible, to attain.
Not only do our inflexible brains make it difficult to learn languages at an older age, our hearing has an impact too! Patricia Kuhl, a prominent neuroscientist specializing in early language development, and bilingualism, conducted groundbreaking research on infants’ phonetic perception. She revealed that, when babies are born, they are able to distinguish between and reproduce phonetic sounds in all languages. However, as children grow older, this ability gradually diminishes. Eventually, they can only process sounds in dialects and languages that they’re familiar with.
For example, it’s difficult for native English speakers to hear subtle pitch differences in tonal languages such as Mandarin Chinese and Thai. Also, because English speakers generally aren’t exposed to click consonants, which are found in Southern African languages, they aren’t able to perceive and reproduce the sounds.
Kuhl’s findings are supported by research at the UW Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences, which uses magnetoencephalography (MEG)—a relatively new neuroscience technology that measures the magnetic fields generated by the activity of brain cells. This research reveals how infants’ brains process the sounds of native vs. non-native languages. Around 10 months old, babies' brains stop lighting up uniformly when exposed to multiple languages, instead blocking out those they don’t recognize.
Fluency Without Bias
When children are exposed to languages at an early age, they have the unique advantage of learning them without the biases associated with their primary language. They can learn fully through immersion, instead of translating back and forth with their primary language, as teenagers and adults tend to do. This makes it much easier for them to develop fluency.
As Kuhl states, "The U.S. needs to start teaching foreign languages much, much earlier—before the first birthday, if other languages are to be natural for the child." But, although it’s easier for younger children to become fluent in a second language, they can still struggle. Language immersion is the optimal way for children to learn, and it is especially difficult to achieve in the U.S., where English is the dominant language and people are rarely exposed to other languages. So, at Lelu, we design engaging products that help children fully immerse themselves into Spanish and tap into their natural ability to learn languages!