I just read the “Science Grows on Acquiring New Language” article in Education Week by Sarah D. Sparks highlighting research about how we learn foreign languages. Researchers think that the “critical period” to learn foreign languages well may be longer than previously thought and that babies exposed to hearing people speak in different languages learn to distinguish sounds from various languages early-on.

I am glad that the idea that one must have to start super young to learn a language is being reviewed because some people are discouraged about learning languages because they think they are too late. The brain is really much more elastic than most people think. Although not easily, but and old dog CAN be taught new tricks.

Group of young students studying together at library
Group of Young Students Studying together at Library

The article states:

“For example, researchers long thought the window for learning a new language shrinks rapidly after age 7 and closes almost entirely after puberty. Yet interdisciplinary research conducted over the past five years at the University of Washington, Pennsylvania State University, and other colleges suggest that the time frame may be more flexible than first thought and that students who learn additional languages become more adaptable in other types of learning, too.”

The article shows that children who are bilingual are better off at tasks that require them to sort through different types of objects based on color and shape. This makes sense to me because as I speak seven languages, I can tell that it’s easy for me to notice patterns and organize information because I am constantly navigating between different sound systems and ways of organizing words in sentences. The article quotes, Judith F. Kroll, the principal investigator for the Bilingualism, Mind, and Brain project launched this month at Penn State’s Center for Language Science in University Park, Pa, as saying that “A bilingualist is a mental juggler.” So a polyglot like myself must be living in a seven ring circus!

There was a section of the article that I found unfortunate for parents of children who do not have the money to pay for a bilingual nanny. According to the research at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, known as I-LABS, babies react to sounds from a foreign language only if spoken by a human being with whom they are in direct contact.

Extract from the article:

For example, when babies born to native-English-speaking parents played three times a week during that window with a native-Mandarin-speaking tutor, at 12 months, they had progressed in their ability to recognize both English and Mandarin sounds, rather than starting to retrench in the non-native language. By contrast, children exposed only to audio or video recordings of native speakers showed no change in their language trajectory. Brain-imaging of the same children backed up the results of test-based measures of language specialization.

This means that playing audio or video recordings in a foreign language to a young child will not help the child learn a foreign language. So what does a parent do if the parent doesn’t speak a foreign language and does not have the resources for a baby tutor or nanny? I would still think, in my un-scientific opinion, that exposing the child early on to the sounds of a foreign language via music is still a good idea because at least the baby can get the rhythm or melody of the language. The article doesn’t state whether babies were exposed to Chinese music. I bet that if the audio recordings were not just recordings of words in Chinese, but also music, then the babies might have progressed farther with their recognitions of sounds in Mandarin. Music engages more parts of the brain than language does. I have written about how to learn languages via music and the media in my short book, Language is Music.

There is still much to be learned about how our brains process foreign languages, but the bottom line is that there’s no excuse NOT to study one.


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