Portrait of smart schoolgirls and schoolboys looking at the laptop in classroom

Will your child forget a language learnt in his early childhood?

Portrait of smart schoolgirls and schoolboys looking at the laptop in classroom

What will be left? This is the recurring – and a little anxious – question being asked by parents about the languages learned by their children during infancy or early childhood, especially when these languages are not practiced thereafter.

We already wrote a blog post on this topic that many of you read. The conclusion, based on a study of C. Landing from 2003, seemed clear: a language learned in childhood can be forgotten as quickly as it is learned if it is not used or at least kept after puberty.

And yet, the fine interpretation of the results of this study has been questioned by many other publications. At the end of 2014, J. Pierce of McGill University in Canada demonstrated for the first time that the neural representation of a language acquired in early childhood was firmly rooted in the brain, even if the subject had no conscious memory of that language after having no exposure at all for a long time.

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The demonstration was made with Chinese orphans adopted at the age of 13 months by French families, and completely cut off from their original language. 12 years later, although they had no conscious memory of their language, their brains responded to the tonal system of the Chinese language just as Chinese native speakers. Indeed, while listening to phonemes pronounced with different tones, their brain was using language centres located in the left hemisphere. In comparison, a control group of French children was using acoustic processing functions able to analyse non-linguistic complex signals in the right hemisphere of their brain.

Is having a brain that seems to keep memories of a past language of which the subject has no conscious recollection really useful? Yes, as Leher Singh from the National University of Singapore wrote in 2011. She was also interested in orphans, this time from the Indian subcontinent, adopted in their infancy by American families and completely cut off from their original language. Indian languages contain phonetic contrasts on “t” and “d” that are imperceptible to the ears of Americans. Many years after their change of continent, these little adopted children didn’t seem to be able to perceive these contrasts. At least initially. However, after one month of exposure, the adopted children had made considerable progress in the discrimination of these sounds, in comparison to a control group of young Americans.

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So here is what science teaches us to date:
• around the age of one year, the infant’s brain loses forever the ability to discriminate sounds (consonants, vowels, tones) absent from its own language or its linguistic environment. To perceive contrasts from other languages, a child must be exposed to them during this critical “Phonetic period,” around the age of one year.
• Not being exposed to the language of origin does not mean that this language will be completely forgotten. Its traces remain unconscious, neurologically, which significantly facilitate the learning.

Consequently, one should not hesitate to expose his child to one or more target languages while still a baby, even if these languages are not used immediately or intended to be relearned later. This is an investment that can be made only at this critical period of life. Almost all parents ignore that. Not you.

For more information:

Lara J. Pierce, Denise Klein, Jen-Kai Chenc, Audrey Delcenseried, Geneseea and Fred (2015). Mapping the unconscious maintenance of a lost first language. PNAS, 112, February 2015.

Leher Singh, Jacqueline Liederman, Mierzejewski Robyn and Jonathan Barnes (2011). Rapid reacquisition of native phoneme contrasts after-disuse: you do not always lose what you do not use. Journal of Developmental Science. 14(5), 949-959.

Pallier C, et al. (2003). Brain imaging of language plasticity in adopted adults: Can a second language replace the first? Cereb Cortex 13 (2), 155-161.

Schoolgirl researching online

7 Tips to Help your Child Learn a New Language

Here are some tips to encourage and support your child in his learning journey. And you’ll see, you can do a lot to help!

Schoolgirl researching online

1- Show interest in your child’s Language learning experiences and encourage him or her to share them with you

2- Encourage your child to learn through meaningful language games

3- Read newspapers and books together, starting with books with attractive illustrations

4- Bring your child to the library or bookshops to cultivate a reading habit

5- Watch quality television programmes in the target language together

6- Make use of objects in your environment such as road signs and advertisements to engage your child in conversations in the target language

7-Build up your child’s confidence by not correcting his or her mistakes excessively

 

* Tips from “The new Chinese language curriculum for primary schools” by Singaporean MOE

ma

To read Chinese one must start early

In any written language, words are subject to a triple association: sound, spelling and of course meaning. For example, the English word horse refers to the working and racing animal, is pronounced /hɔː(ɹ)s/ and spelled h-o-r-s-e. Anyone knowing how to read will be able to pronounce the word relatively correctly even if they have never seen it in writing before, as English is written in the Latin alphabetical script.

As explained by S. Dehaene, the reading process takes place here through the so-called phonological route: graphemes are mechanically converted into phonemes without resorting to deeper semantic representations.

cheval

The situation is quite different when it comes to Chinese. All Chinese languages are written in the unified system of Chinese characters. These Chinese characters are pronounced differently in each of the languages of the Chinese linguistic branch, for instance in Mandarin, the most widespread. Non-Chinese speakers often claim that the mapping of a Chinese character and its pronunciation is completely arbitrary; therefore it is said to be impossible to pronounce a character, even when knowing its meaning, unless its pronunciation has been learnt by rote beforehand.

The reality is slightly more subtle. Indeed, it is often necessary to learn simultaneously a word’s character and its pronunciation. But it must be stressed that 80% to 90% of Chinese characters are actually compound characters. They often consist of at least two subcomponents: a phonetic root (there are about 200 of them) and a semantic root (there are about 1000 of them). The phonetic root, often on the right side of the compound character, may give clues as to the pronunciation of the character. The semantic root, often on the left, tells about the word’s meaning, or at least the lexical category it belongs to. For instance, the Chinese character for a horse is马in simplified Chinese, and is pronounced  (third tone) in Mandarin.

The word for mother is pronounced mā ma (ma is doubled, the first one is pronounced with the first tone); the compound character for each ma has the semantic root of woman on its left and the phonetic root of horse on its right.

ma ma English

In a paper dated 2007, Bao Guo Chen and colleagues proved that the more arbitrary the mapping between meaning and sound or spelling, the higher the effects of the Age of Acquisition (AoA) on Chinese reading (for native speakers). Characters acquired early would be read with ease; characters acquired at a later stage would be more difficult to read if the correspondence between writing and sound or spelling was difficult to predict.

In other words, the more difficult it is to deduct meaning and spelling by reading a character, the more detrimental late acquisition is to quality and speed of reading.

Thus, within Chinese language and for native speakers, the impact of the Age of Acquisition increases with the arbitrariness of the mapping between meaning, pronunciation and spelling. What is the situation for alphabetical languages? By definition, reading an alphabetical language gives a very valuable clue as to what the pronunciation is going to be*.

Taken as a whole, the Chinese language is significantly more arbitrary than alphabetical languages in terms of mapping from character to sound and meaning. One can therefore assume that for Chinese even more so than for other languages, there is benefit in learning the language early so as not to be negatively impacted by the enhanced effects of the Age of Acquisition on reading.

 

 

 

 

 

To learn more about Chinese learning :
Chen, B. G., Zhou, H. X., Dunlap, S. and Perfetti, C. A. (2007).Age of acquisition effects in reading Chinese: Evidence in favour of the arbitrary mapping hypothesis. British Journal of Psychology, 98: 499–516. doi: 10.1348/000712606X165484

Stanislas Dehaene (2007). Les neurones de la lectureEditions Odile Jacob

 

Note : * The situation varies quite significantly from language to language. Italian or Turkish, for instance, are very easy to pronounce when reading a text, while a given spelling in English can be read in multiple ways (refer for instance to  toughthroughthorough, etc…)

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Your child’s Journey with VivaLing

Start early, learn well, don’t forget : these are the very simple stages of your child’s Journey with VivaLing. Find out more below about the theoretical framework developed by VivaLing and how it is implemented in order to achieve results. You can also read the related posts throughout our VivaLing blog.

 

The VivaLing framework v2.6 English Image

VivaLing - SLA Learning drivers for children

3 key drivers of second language acquisition for children

VivaLing-SLA-Learning-drivers-for-children

Take a child at any given stage of development. All else equal, three key drivers will determine the effectiveness of the child’s foreign language acquisition: quantity of language activities, motivation, and social interaction.

What is summarized here as language activities covers in fact several concepts, distinct but complementary, perfectly well introduced by Shumei Zhang (2009) of Dongguan University. These concepts are : input, output and feedback. Input describes the amount of target language that the learner is exposed to and that is processed by their brain. Input is indispensable, but not sufficient by itself. Feedback (sometimes called interaction) is necessary for the learner to grow aware of their mistakes and correct them. Last, output, or language produced by the learner, enables them, amongst others, to test their target language hypotheses and develop automaticity in language production. Our brain being “a supercomputer (…) equipped with powerful and rigorous statistical inference mechanisms”, as Stanislas Dehaene (2013), Professor at the College de France, puts it, input, feedback and output will be all the more effective as they come in large quantity and at the required level of quality.

It is thus necessary to speak abundantly to the child in the target language, if possible regularly, and with the right language level (that is to say without mistakes, in a way that is clear enough to be understood and sophisticated enough for the child to progress). The child must be strongly encouraged to speak in the target language, even if they have to take a leap of faith without any guarantee of success. Finally, one should not refrain from providing feedback to the child in case of mistake: it is not blaming or scolding but genuinely a necessary stage in the learning process.

 

L’input est indispensable à l’apprentissage de langue … mais pas suffisant

Input is indispensable for second language acquisition – but not sufficient by itself

Rebecca Oxford (1994), with the University of Alabama, mentions it: “research shows that motivation directly influences how often students use L2learning strategies, how much students interact with native speakers, how much input they receive in the language being learned (the target language), how well they do on curriculum-related achievement tests, how high their general proficiency level becomes, and how long they persevere and maintain L2 skills after language study is over”. Indeed, motivation is one of the most powerful language learning drivers. Motivation can make up for certain aptitude or quantity deficiencies; conversely, without motivation no learning can take place.

Typically, children will want to learn a language to integrate in their environment and have friends, or to succeed at exams; their motivation will be intrinsic, out of interest for the language or for the sake of achievement, or extrinsic, when driven with more or less success by their environment. Teachers play a pivotal role in their students’ motivation. Motivation also implies lack of demotivating factors. Parents, for instance, should not convey their own concerns towards a language that they think is too difficult; society should not make negative judgements on a language that is deemed inappropriate for one reason or the other.

 

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Motivation, a key driver for language learning, varies in nature and intensity from one individual to the other (credit termcoord.eu)

Social interaction is the third learning driver. There is a partial overlap with the previous two drivers: feedback is often given through a social interaction (and not by a machine), and motivation very often comes from someone’s positive action. But the phenomenon is much farther reaching. At the iLabs center at the University of Washington, Sarah Roseberry (2011) studied the linguistic learning of a group of 42 children aged below 3, in various experimental settings: first with an adult attending in person, then with an adult attending virtually through a Skype-like remote connection, last with an adult in a pre-recorded video.

The outcome is unambiguous: live adults, whether present in person or through an online connection, enable a similar level of learning whereas the pre-recorded video is much less impactful. Therefore, one can strongly question the pedagogical effectiveness, at least for infants and toddlers, of pre-recorded child programs, even when the main character asks a question and pretends to be waiting for the answer. The fact is that children are not fooled. For actual learning they need real social interaction wherein the other person effectively follows their gaze, reacts to their facial expressions and change of attitude, pausing or resuming, in a word to their behavioural and learning dynamics.

 

Les personnages de certains dessins animés populaires ne dupent pas les enfants, même lorsqu’ils posent une question et font semblant d’attendre une réponse

The characters of some popular cartoons do not fool children, even when they ask a question and pretend to be waiting for an answer.

For your child’s second language acquisition, make sure not to disregard any of the powerful learning drivers discussed above: quantity of language activities, motivation and social interaction.

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5 myths about your child learning another language

One day you will probably have to decide whether or not to encourage your child to learn another language. Here are 5 myths you need to dispel first.

  • Myth 1 : Most children are monolingual, so why bother ?

Well, no. More than half of the world population actually grows up speaking more than one language. To start with, quite a few countries are officially multilingual (for example, Singapore), and many others are functionally multilingual. In China, while Mandarin is the lingua franca, hundreds of millions speak other regional languages such as Shanghaiese, Cantonese or Hokkien. In India most people speak one or both of the national languages (English and Hindi), one official regional language (there are 22 of them), and a local or family language. Even in Europe more and more children grow up with several languages, so much so that multilinguals now represent 54% of the population.

  • Myth 2 : Leave the kids alone, they will learn when they grow up.

You wish. Unfortunately it does not work that way. True, adults can progress much quicker at the beginning thanks to their advanced analytical skills and their life-long acquired knowledge. But very soon they hit a wall. And how far that wall is varies greatly from one individual to another. Conversely, children might start slowly, but they – and only they – will eventually overcome pronunciation and proficiency issues. So keep this general rule in mind : age of acquisition is a very good predictor of ultimate nativelikeness. The younger, the better. Childhood is indeed a sensitive period when it comes to languages. Oh and by the way, learning too can be great fun for them.

  • Myth 3 : Multilingual kids are late in their language development.

Wrong. Children growing with two or more languages have by and large no delay in language development. Of course, their vocabulary knowledge in any of the two languages may often be smaller than that of a monolingual child ; but when taken together, the lexicons in both languages are at least of the same size as a monolingual child’s. There are also positive interferences, for instance metalinguistic knowledge acquired through one language and transferred to the other.

  • Myth 4 : Multilingual kids confuse their different languages

No they don’t. In fact, right from birth, infants can discriminate between different languages. What does indeed happen is that children speaking different languages may often mix them in a conversation (as in combine them or use them concurrently) – but it is no confusion. This is called code-switching. Why would they do so ? Usually because the right word comes first to their mind in the other language (and maybe they do not even know it in the first language). This happens only when they are aware that the person they are talking to also understands that language. In conversations with monolinguals or when required not to code-switch, multilingual children will stick to one language.

  • Myth 5 : There are no worthwhile advantages to learning other languages

Really ? Incredibly, someone recently claimed to have calculated the return on investment of language learning by studying people’s salaries, and concluded that one should only learn English, if anything. But there is so much more to multilingualism than a higher salary. Being truly successful at school or at work, grasping the most subtle details. Opening up to other people and cultures, and speaking to their heart rather than to their brain. Reaping non-linguistic cognitive benefits, for instance, a higher ability to process conflicting information. And even, as recently discovered, delaying the onset of old-age related diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Convinced ? Let us know !

kuhl-baby

Perceiving sound contrasts : before 1 year of age, or never

Babies are born universal listeners. In the first months of their lives, they can discriminate all the sounds produced by human beings. It is no small feat: you and I cannot. A typical Japanese adult is unable to hear the difference between an English /l/ and /r/. A typical English adult cannot detect the nuance between Mandarin /ɕ/ and /t͡ɕ/. The various /k/ and /q/ sounds in native American languages are not discriminated by non-Indian American adults. And Catalan mid-vowel contrasts (/e/, /ɛ/) are difficult to perceive even for adult Castilian-speaking Spaniards.

Babies keep listening. And while listening, their brains take statistics on the languages spoken in their environment. What happens towards the age of 1 is an incredible linguistic transformation. Babies get better at discriminating the sounds of their own language (native contrasts); but they completely and irremediably lose the ability to detect the sound differences present in other languages but irrelevant to theirs (non-native contrasts). The age of this transformation is known as the critical phonetic period. It is the clearest of all language critical periods.

Incredibly, before they reach that period, babies can be trained in other languages. In her memorable 2010 TED Talk, Patricia Kuhl describes how twelve sessions delivered by a Mandarin speaker to American babies had the same effect as ten and a half months of native Mandarin speaking on Taiwanese babies: at the end of the experiment the two groups were equally good at the perception of Mandarin contrasts.

Two more miracles are to be highlighted. First, the baby brain is a social one. If the baby is exposed to other languages’ sound contrasts by a recording, be it a full video or just an audio track, their performance is as bad as if there had been no training at all. But if the baby is trained by a living person, then the capability to perceive contrasts becomes as good as if the baby had been a native speaker. Sarah Roseberry, a  researcher in Patricia Kuhl’s lab, demonstrated in 2011 that the social impact is felt irrespective of the person’s physical presence or not : a Skype-like online, synchronous video interaction will have the same effect.

The second miracle is how adults could figure out whether babies perceive or not the sound contrasts. Babies, obviously, cannot speak, do not understand what the researchers are looking for and could not express consciously the results anyway. In a 2009 video, Derek Houston summarizes three common methodologies historically used to investigate infant speech discrimination skills :

–          High Amplitude Sucking (HAS) : sensors measure the amplitude and speed at which a baby sucks a pacifier. When different sounds are played (and perceived as different) the sucking response changes.

–          Conditional Head Turns (CHT) : the baby is taught to turn their head when they get a specific signal, in this case when they hear a sound contrast. If they do not turn their head it means they cannot hear a sound contrast.

–          Visual Habituation Methods (VHM) : when habituated to a given sound, babies’ looking time at a visual display tends to decrease. A sudden increase means babies have detected a novel sound.

Today scientists increasingly resort  to electrophysiological and neural imaging techniques, as mentioned in Kuhl’s video. This gives us a direct glimpse at what is happening inside the brain, and whether or not sound contrasts are perceived.

 

For more information :

Houston, D. M., Horn, D. L., Qi, R., Ting, J. Y. and Gao, S. (2007) : Assessing Speech Discrimination in Individual Infants. Infancy, 12: 119–145

Kuhl, P. K., Tsao. F.-M., & Liu, H.-M. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100, 9096-9101

boy_puzzled (credit whiztimes)

Could your child forget a language ?

Sarah and Jeremie’s parents have told us their family’s language history. With a French father and a South-African, English-speaking mother, the two kids grew up simultaneously bilingual. Born in India, surrounded by nannies strictly instructed to speak nothing but Hindi, the kids quickly gained a very good understanding of the local language. The family moved from India to Singapore when Sarah turned five and Jeremie was three and a half. At first the two kids greeted every Singaporean with an enthusiastic “Namaste” – even those clearly of Chinese or Malay origin. Soon, realizing their communication attempts were unsuccessful, they switched to English which was understood by all. One fine day, 6 months after their arrival in Singapore, an Indian asked them their names in very basic Hindi. To everyone’s surprise, the children remained silent, obviously not understanding the question. The perplexed parents made other attempts in Hindi but soon had to face the facts: their children’s Hindi seemed to have completely vanished.

This case is far from unique. Expat families, for instance, know it all too well and never run short of anecdotes on the matter. Initially so prompt to marvel at the nearly miraculous language acquisition of their kids, they are often taken aback when the second language disappears as quickly as it was learned. In his book Bilingual, Francois Grosjean shares several such stories. Little Stephen, at the age of 8, had already learned three languages and forgotten two. Kai Fong, of Cantonese mother tongue, emigrated to the United States with his parents aged 5; by the age of 10, speaking nothing but English, he was no longer able to communicate with the elder members of the family.

But all these disorientated parents often have a secret hope: isn’t the missing language buried somewhere in the brain and ready to re-emerge given the right conditions?

To formally answer this question and others, in 2003 Christophe Pallier chose to study orphans who had been adopted in their infancy or early childhood by families speaking a different language. The subjects finally selected were Koreans who had been adopted between the ages of 3 and 5 by French speaking families.The children had thus lost contact with their mother tongue – Korean – overnight. Then as adults, they underwent a battery of tests from Pallier and his team. The tests consisted, for instance, of recognizing sentences in Korean among other languages, or of identifying the correct translation of a French word between two Korean words. While doing so, the subjects’ brain activity was monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging. For each of these experiments and observations, the results of these Korean orphans were compared with those of a control group of French subjects. The jury is out: the two groups were almost indistinguishable; the Korean orphans had retained no, or almost no memory of the Korean language. The only difference was that the orphans performed better than the control group at recognizing a series of numbers in Korean.

Nevertheless Christophe Pallier reports the findings of other researchers tending to prove sustainable benefits from early exposure to a second language, even when this language (or the mother tongue as seen earlier) seems to be later “forgotten”. The supposed benefits deal mostly with the fields of perception and production of sounds – but the experimental conditions of this research were slightly different and the exposure to the “forgotten” language had never completely stopped.

In view of the results, the call to action is clear. While childhood and early childhood enable second language acquisition in optimal conditions, the second language, if not maintained, can disappear as quickly as it came. It will be gone or nearly gone forever. One must therefore practice! Finally, other studies cited by Christophe Pallier or compiled on Monika Schmid’s website suggest that if the language is retained until puberty, attrition might then be much lower. This is yet another reason to reinforce one’s second language skills until puberty at least.

Addendum (September 2016) : Further studies have unveiled even more interesting aspects of attrition. As Leher Singh puts it, “you do not always lose what you do not use”. More specifically, while children may lose the ability to discriminate a phonemic contrast that occurs in their birth language after this language is replaced by another one, the reacquisition of the contrast after training will be much faster than for a control population. Other studies have yielded converging results : when attrition of a language occurs, the subject may not retain any conscious memory of this language but their brain’s electrical activity upon stimulation differs from that of the control group without prior exposure to the language. 

 

 

* Note : the names have been changed.

For more information :

Schmid, Monika. The attrition website

Grosjean, F (2010). Bilingual. Harvard University Press

Pallier, C (2007). Critical periods in language acquisition and language attrition.  In Barbara Köpke, Monika S. Schmid, Merel Keijzer, and Susan Dostert, editors,Language Attrition: Theoretical perspectives. John Benjamins, Amsterdam

Leher Singh, Jacqueline Liederman, Robyn Mierzejewski, Jonathan Barnes (2011).  Rapid reacquisition of native phoneme contrasts after disuse: you do not always lose what you do not.  In  Developmental Science , 14:5 (2011), pp 949–959

(Credit  carryoverwords.com)

Is your child gifted enough to learn languages ?

Imagine a group of individuals of identical age but all different, immersed in a perfectly uniform educational universe. Their excellent teacher uses a single method for teaching; the individuals all spend the same amount of time on language activities, in the same conditions and with the same motivation. They are thus exposed to the same language acquisition drivers, with the same intensity. Yet, some learn better than others. Why is that?

The explanation to this interpersonal variance is not well known, but it has been given a name: Language Learning Aptitude (LLA).  It is, in a way, the explanatory variable of last resort after exhausting all known factors and differentiators. In less scientific parlance, and discarding pathological cases, one would say that a person is more or less talented at learning languages, whereas specialists would point to a higher or lower language learning aptitude.

LLA has been studied for a long time. John B. Carroll, a prominent psycholinguist, was one of the pioneers. He even developed the first test to measure it in the 50s : the MLAT (Modern Language Aptitude Test). This test, still in use in some U.S. government circles, is based on several components: the first one phonemic, the second one related to associative memory, the third one linked to grammatical memory, and the last one addressing inductive learning ability, i.e. the ability to induce rules governing the structure of the language. Other tests exist, one of the most recent ones developed in the early 2000s by Paul Meara. This test also focuses on a set of various ability components: oral, visual, associative, or grammatical inferences.

Various theories on language learning aptitude (credit: collaborativestudyguide.wikispaces.com LING+575)

Various theories on language learning aptitude (credit: collaborativestudyguide.wikispaces.com LING+575)

Language Learning Aptitude is assumed relatively stable over time, once developmental maturity is reached. Not surprisingly, the language proficiency achieved by a learner will be high when their LLA itself is high. The concept is however somewhat controversial, because of the risk of circularity: can the quality of learning in turn increase the LLA ?

In 2008, a team of Swedish researchers led by Abrahamsson looked into the evolution of LLA impact with age. More specifically, is the impact of LLA as important for children as it is for adults? In other words, does it make sense to say that a child is  more or less gifted at languages ​​and will this determine their learning ability? An experiment was conducted on 42 Spanish adults, all highly proficient in Swedish. Key detail: 31 of them had learned Swedish in their childhood and the other 11 after puberty. Having all reached adult age, they were subjected to a Language Learning Aptitude test.

As anticipated by the authors of the study, the LLA turned out to be a much better predictor of eventual attainment for adult learners than for children. Those who had learned as adults (and achieved a high proficiency) had a high LLA, whereas the LLA of the successful child learners displayed a high variance amongst individuals. This confirmed the hypothesis that being a child is in itself such an important advantage in language learning that it erases differences in language aptitude. To be  precise, LLA differences had indeed been almost entirely neutralized, but not completely – which came as a small surprise.

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comparing children (credit 2dayswoman)

Not much individual variance in children learning languages… (credit 2dayswoman)

Abrahamsson therefore concludes that having a high LLA significantly eases the learning of foreign languages ​​for adults, and perhaps gives a little help to children. But looking at the main confirmation of the study, one can answer the question you might be asking yourself: yes, your child is gifted enough for languages, since he or she is a child.

 

For more information :

Abrahamsson, N., & Hyltenstam, K. (2008). THE ROBUSTNESS OF APTITUDE EFFECTS IN NEAR-NATIVE SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITIONStudies in Second Language Acquisition30(04), 481–509.

Language proficiency and age of acquisition

Only children can (really) learn

It is a proven fact: the age of acquisition of a foreign language is a strong predictor of ultimate similarity to native speaking.  In other words, aiming for a native speaker level requires engaging in early learning. This is not only the finding of any adult marveling at the ability of young children to learn, or alternatively lamenting his own challenges to go beyond certain thresholds. These are also facts that all scientists now agree on.

This does not mean that adults cannot learn at all. Quite the contrary, adults can often start learning a second language much faster than children. During their lifetime they have developed cognitive abilities that are superior to those of children. When they tackle a language, they are immediately capable of structuring their learning and organizing their knowledge ; drawing phonetic, syntactic or semantic comparisons with other languages or language groups ; understanding or generalizing a rule.

But in the long run, the time and the energy that adults have to devote to their learning far exceed those of children. And it is not long before obstacles start popping up. Pronunciation is usually an insurmountable issue that emerges right from the outset. Adults soon reach a general cap in their learning. For many learners, building sentences is a conscious effort rather than the natural flow or the near reflex of a native speaker. Even highly talented adult learners will sooner or later be betrayed by a facet of speech : a sound never produced, a phrase never used, or a mistake never made by a native speaker.

Language proficiency and age of acquisition

Ultimate level of language proficiency, as a function of age of acquisition (credit : inspired from Patricia Kuhl)

So children learn much better than adults; yet adults can learn to some extent.  This is why the historic notion of a critical period is now giving way to that of a sensitive period for learning.  When the notion of a critical period prevailed, it was believed that at a certain age – somewhere between 4-5 years-old and teen-age depending on the authors – the ability of learning would drop drastically and almost vanish overnight. More refined theories would identify several critical periods depending on the element of language structure: phonology, morphology, semantics…  Except for phonology today’s belief is different. It is now generally accepted that there is a sensitive period that ends before the teenage years ; language learning is much easier during this sensitive period than afterwards.

Have you yourself noticed the great ease displayed by children when learning, compared to adults ?

You will find out in our next post why children learn better.