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2. Children are little geniuses!

Welcome to the second appointment of Multilingualism matters!

Most of us adults take language for granted, unless we have to learn a new one, and we realize how difficult that can be. But things work differently for children! How can they be so good at languages? There is a general consensus among researchers in Linguistics and Psychology, according to which language develops as a natural process of the human brain. This means, all babies come into the world with a gift for languages. From the day they are born, and excluding pathological cases, they begin to learn the language that surrounds them, no matter what language that is.

One of the most fascinating aspects of child language acquisition is that infants know a lot of things about the language in which they are immersed, long before they are able to produce their first words. Moreover, scientists in Finnland showed that they can listen to languages even when they are still in the womb, they can hear sounds clearly enough to identify the basic rhythm and certain features of the speaker’s voice. After birth, they are able to recognize their mother tongue. How do experts measure that? With a high-tech pacifier: newborns seem to perceive unfamiliar vowel sounds by sucking more intensively, as if they would want to hear more of the new sounds.

Infants learn by being exposed to the right quality and quantity of auditory information, but evidence proves that social interaction plays a strong role in language acquisition. The presence of a human being interacting with a child has a strong influence on learning, as it is dramatically illustrated by the few examples of children raised in social isolation. A study conducted by Prof. Patricia Kuhl at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (University of Washington), was designed in order to test whether infants can learn from short-term exposure to a foreign language. Her research revealed that infants learned much more during the interactions with humans, than watching language lessons on TV (see video at the end of the page).

While acquiring a language, children need to go through the so called linguistic milestones, i.e. the most significant skills that a child has to master in approaching to language. Children differ from each other in how and when they reach these important milestones: babbling (usually before age one), the one-word stage (approximately at age one), the two-word stage (approximately at age one and a half or two), then saying different words and producing the first short sentences. Because of the considerable variation across children, some can say their first word at nine months and some others at eighteen months. Different investigations on bilinguals show that the order of these milestones holds for both monolingual and bilingual children. The key research topics in bilingual language development show the following important results:

  • Uneven development across language is common: language abilities do not necessarily develop in each language simultaneously. A language might develop faster than the other, mainly because of the different quantity of bilingual children’s language input.
  • Once they start to build sentences consisting of three or four words, most of their sentences in just a single language follow the grammatical rules of that language. However, code mixing is very common and it is part of the natural process of bilingual language development. Early word combinations may consist of two words from the same language, or one word from each language.
  • It is important that bilingual children also learn to understand words and phrases in two languages rather than just one.

 

For adults, learning a new language can be a challenge. Within the normal individual variation (some people are better than other in learning foreign languages), it is quite noticeable that children seem to learn better, faster and without many efforts in comparison to adults. The most difficult challenges for adults learning a second language are reaching a competent and fully mastery of the grammar and a perfect pronunciation. The difference in language learning between adults and children has been studied and analyzed by many researchers and from different perspectives. Since the 1970s there has been a long-standing debate about the so called “critical period” for language learning. In spite of the strong individual differences, there is a general consensus among linguists about the hypothesis that, after a certain age it is (more) difficult to learn certain peculiarities of the language. This is mainly due to the neurological organization of the brain, which seems to be less efficient for some linguistic tasks in adults than in children. Interestingly, some studies conducted in the USA and in Canada aimed at determining what age should a person start learning a second language in order to gain a native-like accent in that language. They found that people immigrated to those countries before the age of 8 years old could acquire a native competence in English, independently from the number of years spent in those countries and their school achievements. However, other studies put the critical period for the acquisition of the phonological aspects of the language at around the age of 12 years old. Recent findings seem to be more optimistic and suggest a series of “sensitive periods” for different linguistic abilities, such as accent, morphology and syntax. They confirm that brain changes throughout childhood, but this is a gradual process, so the ability doesn’t really disappear, it changes.

Other studies showed that the most important factors causing individual variation among adults learning a foreign language are: attitude, motivation and strategies used. I’m sure everyone knows a person who managed to reach a high level of proficiency in a language, if she/he has the perseverance and the time to do it and if she/he is moved by strong motivations.

To conclude, children are little geniuses because they can learn one or more languages apparently without any effort, if they are exposed to languages and if people interact with them in these languages. Furthermore, studies on bilingual children (like the ones conducted in Scotland by Prof. Antonella Sorace) have acknowledged that raising bilingual children DO NOT confuse nor delay their learning of any language. Children are able to acquire two or more languages providing that they get good quality and quantity of language input and social interaction. In addition, the home language of children from minority communities is sometimes regarded as an obstacle to successful linguistic and social integration. But, indeed, the contrary is true: for immigrant children, knowledge of one’s heritage language can promote greater self-esteem and self-confidence. If parents in these communities abandon their own language, there is the risk that children may grow up with a negative perception of their home language and their identity.

In the next article we are going to talk about the so called “bilingual advantage”.

Find out more:

The experiment by Patricia Kuhl demonstrates that children learn more through social interaction can be found here

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