Have you ever heard the story about the little boy who was raised by wolves in a French forest? Anecdotal history tells us that when humans found this child and brought him amongst their own to educate him, he refused to learn to speak. Other toddlers his age, however, could effortlessly pick up multiple languages fluently, and older children could easily pick up new languages. What is going on here, and what is the best age to learn a new language? And why, as we age, do our language-learning skills more resemble the difficulties of the boy who was raised by wolves than children who seem to pick up new languages at the snap of a finger? We’re going to discuss this topic in today’s blog post, encouraging parents to send their children to learn English when they are still young learners.
Acquisition versus learning
Brain imaging evidence shows that newborns are able to hear and distinguish between all language sounds, those that are both in their mother tongue and those that aren’t. From a very young age, the left hemisphere of the brain seems to be responsible for language acquisition, while we use both sides of the brain as we grow older, often still favouring the left.
While babies’ brains do have a lot of growing to do, it’s still impossible for them to hold every piece of language information that is presented to them. At first, up until around the age of three, children’s brains take in all stimuli. But some information is more important, and they also need increasing amounts of space in the brain not only to store information, but to accommodate connections as well. During this phase, babies and toddlers will begin undergoing what is called pruning. Their brains will delete any information that isn’t being used to make space for more connections. If a child is only hearing one language, their brains will delete their ability to hear and respond to non-native sounds. But if they hear more than one language being spoken around them at this age, they will keep everything they’ve heard, and acquire those languages as well.
Toddlers and younger children cannot learn languages. Studies have shown that, even with professional teachers, they don’t take in much information, their attention spans are very short, and they make no effort to actively memorise what they’ve learnt. The only way for them to achieve language skills is through listening to native speakers and imitating them. This process is called language acquisition, and is completely different from language learning, which is a very active process.
What makes young learners so good at learning new languages?
LAL School offers language learning courses for young learners between the ages of 10 and 18, and if you want your children to learn English, there are plenty of advantages to doing so between these ages. This is because they can benefit from the best of both language acquisition and language learning. Let’s begin with language acquisition.
Much like younger children, older children and teenagers still have plastic brains. What this means is that their brains are still growing and developing, easily and efficiently storing new information, while being able to prune anything that they aren’t using. This means that they have more space for new things than adults, whose brains don’t prune nearly as much. This along with the fact that the evolution of their brains will lead them to want to fit in as much as possible during these ages is a recipe for success. One of the main social focuses for them is fitting in with their peers. At LAL, most of our students come from different countries, and English is one of the only ways for them to communicate and make friends. This encourages them to acquire these language skills faster.
Even though their brains still have a good amount of plasticity, they have also grown so much and are beginning to resemble adult brains more and more each year. This is also beneficial for language learning! Throughout the school years they’ve had so far, they have gotten used to sitting down and actively learning and holding their attention on one subject for a long time. This is especially important for grammar. You cannot acquire grammar naturally after the age of five or six. If you aren’t familiar with a language’s grammar system by then, you’ll have to learn it the hard way. This is the reason many people learning new languages as they get older can easily memorise vocabulary, but make mistakes with order, tenses and genders and sentence structure. Babies and toddlers just know the rules, anyone older has to learn them, remember them and practise them.
And what about the feral French child we mentioned at the beginning of this article? We don’t know if he was actually raised by wolves (but he probably wasn’t), but it was obvious to scholars at the time that by the time he was captured at age 12, he had spent the majority of his life living in a local forest by himself. He was eventually able to learn to respond to commands, but could never speak or understand full sentences. This case, and many afterwards, has shown us that we don’t only acquire the ability to speak languages before the age of six, but we also acquire the ability to learn languages in future. The French boy’s brain lost most of its plasticity at the normal age, but he didn’t speak, and so he didn’t physically develop the structures within the brain to allow him to learn language in the future.
So what is the difference between adults and young learners? It basically all comes down to brain plasticity. The younger we are, the easier it is for our brains to completely and structurally change shape depending on what we’re learning and what’s important in our immediate environment. The less plastic your brain becomes, the more difficult it can be to learn new things, not because it’s not possible, but because you need to put in the time and practice of fitting new information into the current shape of your brain, rather than your brain changing to accommodate new information.
Would you like to know more about how you can take advantage of the structure of an adult brain to learn a new language? Get in touch to let us know, and if you and/or your child are ready to begin your English-learning journey, click here.