Adults Can Be Retrained To Learn Second Languages

Adults Can Be Retrained To Learn Second Languages

It is an accepted fact that the younger the child, the easier it is for them to learn a second language. Children are able to understand words and hear small sound differences that adults often miss making understanding more difficult for adults. For example, Polish students of English have difficulty differentiating between vowels such as “pen” and “pan” while German students must learn to hear a difference between the v in “vest” and the w in “west”.

Scientists used to believe that the adult brain could not be retrained later in life to distinguish between these sounds: in other words, the brain plasticity or its ability to change was set.

Dr. Iverson shows that adults can retune their brains to hear these differences again.  Scientists now believe that the difficulties are caused by our experience which teaches us to ignore certain sounds so that we are able to give our full attention to the sounds that (in our native language) matter most to understanding a sentence.

“Adult learning does not appear to become difficult because of a change in neural plasticity. Rather, we now think that learning becomes hard because experience with our first language warps perception. We see things through the lens of our native language and that warps the way we see foreign languages.”

How Children Learn Languages

Learning a language—learning a first language or learning a fourth—is an exceptional accomplishment for anybody. Yet everyone completes this process and does so successfully at least once in their life.

Linguists—those researchers who devote their lives and thoughts to studying the intricacies and nuances of language—call the learning process “doubtless the greatest intellectual feat any one of us is ever required to perform.” Yet this achievement is often taken completely for granted. For non-linguists (like most of us), the magnitude of this accomplishment only becomes apparent when we step back and think of everything that goes into the first few faltering steps we take toward language.

An excellent guide to this moment in life is linguist Dr. Charles Yang’s book, The Infinite Gift: How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World. Dr. Yang, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, ably reveals the complexities of the process while also showing us why these complexities are mastered so naturally—and so beautifully—by children all over the world, regardless of the language they’re learning. Following his guided tour of language learning, we can even begin to appreciate the astonishing truth that, as he says, “Children are infinitely better at learning languages than we are.”

In order to appreciate the mechanics and other fine points of language learning, many linguists believe we need to understand one big concept first. The ability to learn a language is, they say, part of the “software” we were born with, running in slightly different ways based on specific data inputs. This “program” is called “universal grammar”, and it explains how children can learn so quickly despite being surrounded by unfamiliar sounds, many of which aren’t even part of language! “The only way for children to learn something as complex as language”, as the theory goes, “is to have known a lot about how language works beforehand, so that a child knows what to expect when immersed in the sea of speech. In other words, the ability to learn a language is innate, hidden somewhere in our genes.”

Trial and Error

Of course, not all languages appear to share much in common, and their diversity seems to defy the idea that there could be something universal underlying all languages that is coded into our species at the gene-level. Yet linguists point out that, with careful and meticulous analysis of the structures of world languages, one sees that the places languages diverge from each other are limited, and the ways they diverge are also limited. For example, English sentences follow a pattern of subject-verb-object (“kids learn Spanish”) while a Bengali, a Hindi or a Japanese sentence follows the pattern of subject-object-verb (“kids Spanish learn”).

Bonus fact: Irish and Scottish Gaelic are two of the few examples of languages that follow the pattern verb-subject-object, as in “learn kids Spanish.”

Yet if there is something universal about language deep down in our genes, why was French class sophomore year so tough? Here Dr. Yang introduces a brilliant and original theory. Clearly, we cannot be born into any specific language—babies born in San Francisco aren’t any more inherently predisposed to English than those born in Santiago. What Yang suggests instead is that, over our first few years, we learn to “specialize” in our native language by finding out what sounds, grammar and phrases don’t work for our language. “Only the grammar actually used in the child’s linguistic environment will not be contradicted, and only the fittest survives. In other words, children learn a language by unlearning all other possible languages.”

Hunting for Language

A critical step—perhaps the first step—in this unlearning process is when babies begin to sift the little nuggets of language they hear from all the other noises around them. It seems second nature to us to distinguish speech from all the other sounds we make, but for someone whose introduction to speech and sounds begins in the womb, it may not be.

Yang does say, that even in the womb a baby can begin to pick up the rhythm and cadence of speech—what linguists (and poets) call prosody. As Yang suggests, hum a sentence in English and then one in (if you know it) Spanish or Italian. There are broad distinctions between the patterns of stress and how long you hold different syllables between these languages, or between German and French. Scientists have proven that even newborns are sensitive enough to these differences to notice when a speaker switches from one language to another. From the get-go, babies use prosody to pull speech out of, as Yang calls it, “the acoustic mess that conceals consonants, vowels, and words.”

A second part of this language scavenger hunt is the process of pulling sounds apart so that they can be combined in different ways. And a part of that process is learning which sounds in a language generate different meanings when they’re used. For instance, saying “bat” like an Englishman (“baht”) doesn’t make it a different word, but saying “cat” does.

Let’s take a different case. In some Southeast Asian languages, such as Korean or Japanese, the ‘r’ and the ‘l’ do not make words mean different things when they are pronounced. Yet in English, they clearly make a great deal of difference. What is interesting is that studies have shown that Korean babies can easily differentiate between ‘r’ and ‘l’. Yang comments, “as Korean babies grow into Korean adults, a perfectly distinguishable acoustic contrast gets lost; only those sounds that are important to the words in the Korean language are retained.”

Language Learning and Lazy Brains

Yang says, “We need to be careful about exactly what is lost in the specialization process. It was once thought that the native language permanently dulls out the universal auditory system available at birth, but the reality turns out to be more complicated. First, it remains true that (sufficiently) young children can move to a new country and speak the language very well; this would not be possible if the auditory system lost the sensitivity to nonnative contrasts altogether.”

So it is not that a child (or an adult) suddenly loses the physical capacity to hear distinct ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds, but rather that the (now well-trained) brain has begun taking over and purposely ignoring the differences in sensory input between them. But why does this happen? Does the older brain just get lazy? Yang has a simple answer: well, sort of. The world of language—not to mention the world of sounds—is a complex place, with torrents of sensory data bombarding you most of the time. Cutting a few corners isn’t laziness, therefore—it’s a survival mechanism, like being able to recognize your alarm clock’s bell but ignoring most other noises that might wake you up at 5:30 A.M.

Children’s Language Learning Around the World

If you’re still a little concerned about where this puts you and your child, you’re not alone. Parents all over the world worry about where their children are in their developmental path even just relative to their neighbors, much less relative to all the children in China or Germany. Yang has some solid words of encouragement. “While there are typical behaviors as children utter their earliest words, there is no typical child. All children are different: their vocal tracts have different sizes and shapes, their physiological maturation follows somewhat different schedules, and above all, they have different parents (so they hear different words) … A global perspective for language forces us to assume that children all over the world are on the same footing.”

How to Help Children Learn A Second Language

Of course, we know that hearing that your child has her own unique developmental path and process isn’t going to stop you from wondering what that path holds, and how you can be a part of it. Taking what we know about language, here is some advice:

If the most critical step of language learning for a child is the process of finding the language—of picking its words and sounds and rhythms out from all the “acoustic mess” around them—then help them find more than one language! This won’t mix them up any more than playing Radiohead and Rachmaninoff will leave them later incapable of telling rock from classical. Play them DVDs or CDs of people speaking in a foreign language, read to them in it if you feel comfortable doing so, and let it be part of their audio environment.

Learning a Second Language at an Early Age

If babies and toddlers specialize in one language because “only the grammar actually used in the child’s linguistic environment will not be contradicted, and only the fittest survives,” then it is absolutely essential to offer children an environment in which the grammar and vocabulary of another language will be encouraged. Parents should urge their children to use it themselves, experimenting as they would with English. And parents should also make sure that there are positive examples of the language in the home—in some form or another, and not necessarily the parents themselves.

It really seems that earlier is better because earlier is easier. If language learning is also a process of unlearning, the less unlearning takes place, the better. The more we adapt to one language, the more our brain ignores the subtle inputs which can mean a great deal for another language. Yang recommends thinking of it in terms of distinguishing between colors—if you’ve become used to thinking of orange and yellow as the same color, you’re going to have to see them next to each other many times to begin to see the difference. You certainly can, but the longer you’ve been thinking of them as the same, the more times you’ll have to see them side-by-side. Start out with the rainbow, and the world’s a much more colorful place.

Does Bilingualism Help Children Learn to Read?

Learning and using another language have been linked to all kinds of benefits for children and adults. This is particularly true for young children’s expanding cognitive abilities. According to Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto of Dartmouth College, children who have been exposed early to a second language possess an overall “cognitive edge.” Numerous studies have also linked language education to higher scores on many standardized tests. But can knowing another language also help children learn to read? A study from Canada’s York University suggests that bilingualism may in fact impact the development of literacy in a number of significant ways.

Dr. Ellen Bialystok, one of the world’s foremost experts on bilingualism among children, led a group of researchers from York University in analyzing the effects of bilingualism on a group of over 100 children learning to read. Summarizing the results, Dr. Bialystok commented, “Our research has shown that reading progress amongst all bilingual children is improved” over monolingual children. In a separate statement, she said, “I think there’s a lot of worry out there about other languages conflicting with a child’s ability to learn to read in English, but that’s absolutely not the case. Parents should not hesitate to share their native tongue with their children—it’s a gift.”

More particularly, Dr. Bialystok and her team found the advantage in literacy bilingual children possessed was due to two specific effects of bilingualism —a greater “metalinguistic awareness” and an ability to transfer reading skills and principles from one language to another.

The sum of two languages is greater than the parts

In the York University team’s report, titled “Bilingualism, Biliteracy, and Learning to Read: Interactions among Languages and Writing Systems,” the first advantage bilingual students possessed is described as “a general understanding of reading and its basis in a symbolic system of print. This general understanding can be acquired in any writing system and gives children an essential basis for learning how the system works and how the forms can be decoded into meaningful language.”

In other words, because bilingual kids are used to thinking of more than one word relating to a given object (for instance, “árbol” and “tree” both describing or representing the same object), they are more sensitive to language as a system made up of distinct sounds. This sensitivity can be transferred to reading as the child learns to associate the letters in print with sounds. As Dr. Bialystok says, “Really, it’s all about decoding ability. These children can more quickly grasp the concept that letters make sounds. They realize that this same concept can be applied to both languages, and suddenly a light goes on. It’s a transferable set of strategies and expertise.”

The general sensitivity to language is often called “metalinguistic awareness.” This greater awareness or sensitivity can come as a result of exposure over time to more than one language, regardless of the language—it can be French or Farsi or English! The important part is the added awareness of language itself, an effect which Dr. Bialystok sums up as “the knowledge of two languages is greater than the sum of its parts.”


Bilingual kids don’t have to reinvent the alphabet

The second advantage the York University team found was “the potential for transfer of reading principles across the languages,” or the likely possibility that children will take the methods and insights they’ve built up in one language and apply them to advance much more rapidly in the other language. In other words, they don’t have to relearn the concept of an alphabet in English if they’ve been taught it already in French.

In the study, the bilingual children were all learning to read in both languages at the same time, and Dr. Bialystok and her team thought it might be the additional practice of learning to read that accounted for the bilingual children’s advantage. But the results surprisingly showed that the bilingual kids’ advantage was independent of instruction time in the other language. The key was not so much how many hours were spent practicing as the ability the other language gave them to combine their insights and strategies. The York University team credited this as “the additional advantage of applying the concepts of reading that they learn to their two languages, enhancing both and boosting their passage into literacy.”


Learning a new language teaches you more about your own

A child just setting out to learn a new language also learns many new things about how languages work. For many older kids, knowledge of English grammar is commonly solidified by learning a foreign language. English grammar may seem natural to us and we hardly think about it—that is, until we encounter the grammar of another language. The quirks and oddities of our own language pass by without our notice until we see something different that heightens our awareness of how our first language works and requires at least a moment of reflection.

At a young age, these insightful discoveries happen quickly, as a child’s speech and thoughts evolve from simple expressions of needs to colorful and dramatic retellings of events overflowing with new and descriptive vocabulary. Learning another language brings a new dimension to these insightful discoveries of childhood, broadening your child’s experiences and encouraging him to take hold of language in a new way.

Three Key Factors for Success in Language Learning for Children & Adults

A number of factors influence anyone’s success at mastering a new language. Such a complex process necessarily has many contributing causes and elements. However, we have seen three factors repeated time and again in the advice and the research surrounding second language learning—immersion, consistency and an early start. These three aspects of the language-learning process are the key for your child to secure a strong foundation for acquiring a second language and grow into it enjoyably and productively.

Immersion: An immersive environment is critical for learning a language quickly and in a manner which lasts. Immersion means all or nearly all the verbal—auditory or visual—inputs you receive are in the language you are trying to learn, from simple directions to answers to your questions. Immersion is therefore very different from what most of us have experienced, usually a classroom where promptings in English were the ready answers if we stumbled over our new words or sentences.

Immersion seems like it could be too ambitious for a child, but being immersed in a language is good because it encourages you to notice all forms of communication, including non-verbal ones like body language or pictorial signs, and to engage a number of different parts of your brain simultaneously. It encourages you to drop the habit of forming your thoughts in your native language, translating them, and then trying to get them out of your mouth in one piece. Wouldn’t it be simpler just to think in your new language? And if you think that may be too much for children, remember that they didn’t learn their first language in any other manner.

Immersion is important because it teaches children the value of context. Language occurs in context, and learning how to “read” context is as important as learning how to read words. This is true not just for writing and for speaking, but for listening and following directions, learning new things, and the long and wonderful process of mastering a language.

Consistency: Consistency, meaning a persistent exploration of language, is the second key to language-learning because the process of getting familiar with a language is a lot like becoming familiar with a city or town—a friendly one, to be sure, with lots of playgrounds.

As in getting to know a city, exploring a language only every once in a while, doesn’t get you very far. Knowing a few main avenues may be helpful and may get you around alright, but only consistent travel through the many neighborhoods and side streets of a city will give you access to the best routes and the hidden gems of the area. Without consistent exploration, you can feel turned around if you diverge from your customary path; with it, getting off track just adds to what you already know!

Consistency is essential for language learning because a language is something that grows, not something that can be cut up and memorized. Because it grows, returning to previous lessons isn’t just repetition, but an expansion. Learning occurs not just when a new word is encountered, but when a new context for an old word is discovered, or a new way of using an old word is found. The important thing is to keep your new language with you and not let its charming neighborhoods and side-streets fall out of sight.

Early Start: Not only is there a wealth of scientific research and reports on the benefits of starting a second language at a young age, but it also just makes sense. When you are young, you’re learning so much that the “foreignness” of a second language doesn’t faze or intimidate you—in a sense, no language is “foreign” to a young child. Children are experimenting with all kinds of noises as well, and are less set in their ways in terms of which sounds they use.

Children are also less self-conscious that they’re “learning” something when they’re experiencing a new language, and that lack of self-consciousness can mean greater boldness and more resilience if they make a mistake. Children try out new words often—in their first language. Mistakes are just a natural part of that eager experimentation.

Starting early also gives children greater time to see the effects of consistency and immersion blossom and build upon one another. Starting younger means children have greater room to grow into both their first and second languages, and more opportunities to see them side-by-side. This side-by-side experience encourages your child to think in more complex ways and see more nuance both in the world and in language. We all know how vibrant synonyms can make language for even a monolingual speaker. When we learn the slight differences of meaning words take on in different languages, we discover that there are different ways of seeing and experiencing a single thing.

Immersion. Consistency. Early Start. These three things aren’t the only ingredients for a successful language experience—your child is too unique for that! —but they are elements that have worked, and worked in combination, for thousands of parents and their children. They form a strong and effective trio, and help you and your child embark on a brilliant new journey through language.

Language Acquisition in Children

You may remember watching your toddler picking up words at an astounding pace, naming favorite toys, learning animal sounds, and of course uttering her first “mama” or “dada.” If you have had the joy of experiencing this, or are even experiencing it right now, it probably comes as no surprise that children have an amazing ability to learn a language. 

Many experts say that there are unique learning advantages that come with childhood. Others simply point to the native accents and greater proficiency achieved by young language learners. Regardless of the reasoning, researchers agree that earlier is better when it comes to language learning.

It is believed that childhood is a unique “window of opportunity” to introduce languages and other new experiences that grow an appreciation for other cultures and foster a lifelong love of learning.

Children’s Brains are Wired for Learning

After years of study, multiple linguists and researchers concur that children’s brains are wired for learning. Circuits and pathways are formed within the brain with each observation and experience. The ability of the brain to form and reform connections is commonly referred to as plasticity. Connections are built that help make associations between words, objects, sounds and smells.  With children, these connections are formed at an amazing rate. 

Repetition is an important factor in helping to form these connections, especially in learning a language.  Children are natural copycats, often delighting in repeating and mimicking sounds and words. They pick up language by first listening and absorbing and later copying what they hear and what they observe.  Children are able to make automatic associations between words and objects, in both the first and the second languages, with ease.

From around six months of age, children are able to distinguish real words and nonsense words. When first learning language, children are listening to sounds and then reproducing grammatical rules as modeled by their parents and others who provide daily care and interaction. Although they may not yet be able to model what they hear, even in the earliest months, they have an incredible ear for sounds. Adults frequently have difficulty understanding and pronouncing the sounds of other languages that are not present in their own because they do not “hear” them in the same way that a child does. Children are simply more receptive to the nuances of sounds within different languages.  This natural openness allows them to distinguish and replicate these sounds in their own speech. Some argue that due to years of experience and deeply rooted connections within the adult mind, mimicking never before heard sounds can be extremely difficult. That’s not to say that we are unable to learn languages as we age, but adults are rarely able to develop the level of proficiency or native accent of those who first learned a second language in childhood.

Learning Multiple Languages in Children

Taking advantage of childhood to encourage children to learn additional languages has many benefits. As our world grows smaller and smaller, children who are fluent in more than one language may encounter far fewer communication barriers. Learning a second and third foreign language may also improve a child’s understanding of their native language. In addition to enhancing problem solving skills and creativity, many psychologists also feel that learning additional languages early in life may assist in “sharper thinking” and greater critical thinking skills. Bilingual children consistently perform higher on standardized testing such as the SAT. Scientists have also discovered that learning multiple languages physically changes the brain. Areas in the left side of the brain, which are affected greatly by language, appear to be denser in individuals who speak more than one language. One report shows that the increase in density appears to be directly affected by the age at which individuals begin learning a second language. Those who began learning at earlier ages showed the greatest increase in density.

Don’t worry if you only speak one language. There are many ways to assist your child in taking advantage of the window of opportunity that is childhood. If there are bilingual parents or care providers active in the child’s life, have those individuals speak to the child in their language if not exclusively, as much as possible. Additionally, multimedia programs designed for the way that children absorb language in context are also useful tools in introducing children to a second language. Whatever method you choose to introduce a new language, focusing on keeping language learning fun is the best way to continue that lifelong love of learning that all parents wish for their children.