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Why Children Learn Better: Science Is Shedding Light

The man on the street has noticed it and science has confirmed it: children are more able to learn foreign languages and achieve high proficiency than adults. What are the reasons? All else being equal, neurology and psychology will provide us with the answers.

Neurological explanations address the state of the brain and its ability to carry out a given task at a certain stage of its development. Several hypotheses were explored as early as the 60ies. One dealt with brain maturation: the brain was thought to be like a slate of clay which, once carved with the mother tongue, could neither be erased nor re-written nor complemented by a foreign language. Another explanation, focusing on native language interference, claimed that once the mother tongue had been acquired, the learning mechanism itself was completely dismantled in order to reallocate neural tissues – a scarce resource – to other tasks. It is known today that some of these extreme explanations are wrong and others, incomplete and oversimplifying.

However, other age-related phenomena affecting foreign language learning are now much better known. The first one is the decrease of brain plasticity over time. Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, refers to the changes in neural pathways brought about by environmental or experiential stimuli. Each new learning (be it knowledge or skill) triggers new brain circuitry creation so as to transfer and process the information. Conversely, unused connections are disposed of in order to optimize the brain functioning and performance. At birth, each neuron (and there are about 100 billion of them) has 2500 synapses enabling neural connections. At age 2-3, the number of synapses per neuron increases to … 15000, that is to say twice the average adult number. In fact, by neural pruning, synaptic density progressively decreases from mid-childhood and teenagehood onwards, at a pace specific to each brain area. In addition, myelination (the sheathing of axons) reinforces the effectiveness of existing neural connections but is detrimental to the brain’s flexibility to set up new neural pathways. Specialization of brain areas to specific and precise functions carries on. Neuroplasticity inexorably decreases with brain maturation. Processes like language learning enjoy a privileged window of opportunity after basic sensory functions and before higher cognitive functions.

Hensch - Brain plasticity

Based on brain plasticity, learning goes through successive sensitive periods focused on: senses during early childhood, language and motor functions during childhood, and later higher cognitive functions (maths, critical thinking, etc…) (credit : adapted from Hensch, 2005, Nature Reviews Neuroscience)

 

David Birdsong, one of the current leading researchers on effects of age of acquisition, identifies other sources as well. Firstly, the widespread decline of cognitive capabilities with age is a regular phenomenon that does not spare language learning. Secondly, interference of the native tongue probably increases with age – age being a proxy of usage of this language. Last, according to psycho-linguists, Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device –giving access to Universal Grammar –, or any other language-specific acquisition mechanism, seems to disappear with age.

Socio-psychological reasons are completely different in nature but no less significant. Children do not feel embarrassed by novelty, since everything is new and consequently nothing is really abnormal. New sounds, even when very different from the mother tongue’s, are not frightening. Children utter them convincingly whereas adults might hesitate to stress them as strongly – they are so “weird”! More importantly still, children will not shy away from trying even if not completely sure, from having a go even if they are mistaken and must start again. Besides, other children will not be critical of the mistakes, at least not in the same proportions. As for adults, they might fear that their social status – which comes across so naturally in their mother tongue – could be degraded by an incomplete command of the other language. To make a long story short, social self-awareness sometimes plays against language learning by adults.

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Regardless of the quality of the learning environment – this topic will be addressed at a later stage –, children are more able to learn foreign languages  than adults  because of neurological and socio-psychological reasons. This is why one should make the most of sensitive period of childhood – it is so favourable !

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

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 !

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

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.