CogniFit's Science blog: Children, Bilingualism And Brain Plasticity

Children, Bilingualism And Brain Plasticity

Studies have found that the best age to learn a language is between birth and 7. This leaves most of the population out of learning a second language well enough to be considered a native speaker. Scientists have been looking into why children are able to learn languages so quickly and whether there is any way to apply the ability to adult language learning.

Each language has its own set of sounds that are particular to that language.

Babies are born with the ability to distinguish all sounds, but this ability to distinguish sounds diminishes even before they start talking, usually by their first birthday. When a mother speaks to her child, no matter what the language, the brain begins to build specific architecture that fits the sounds of that language. If the baby is exposed to two languages, their brain develops two sets of neural circuits, each one dedicated to a different language.

What is also interesting is that when babies are exposed to two languages, they learn both of them in the same time that it takes to learn one. Both monolingual and bilingual babies can say about 50 words by a year and a half.

Italian scientists examining the phenomena found that bilingualism seems to make the brain more flexible. The more they hear, the more they can absorb. The brain is simply more plastic before the age of seven and it can create more circuits at that age then after they mature.

Adults learn by a totally different process, and find it much more difficult to reach the status of “native speaker,” if they can reach that level at all.

Scientists have been trying to come up with ways to help adults learn language. They have found that babies need personal interaction to absorb the new language, so adult language learning should be a more a more social experience, more similar to the one babies have when learning. Scientists at Tokyo Denki University and the University of Minnesota have developed a computer language program that pictures people speaking in what they call “motherese,” slow, exaggeration of sounds, like a mother uses when talking to her baby. The program also allows the learners to watch the face of a computerized instructor as he pronounces the words.

It is still in the early stages of development, but student who have been learning from the program seem to be better at pronouncing the foreign language than students who learn by more conventional methods.

The advice of experts is though, that if you speak a foreign language, speak it to your infant. The earlier they are exposed to the sounds, the faster they will absorb it.