It’s often said that children pick up new skills quickly; that their brains are like sponges and that they absorb information more rapidly. There’s also a perception that it’s easier to learn a language when you’re young and that you’re more likely to become fluent if you start early.
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Boston College set out to put this to the test. From data collected from nearly 670,000 language learners, they established that the “critical period” for learning the grammar of a new language and achieving “proficiency similar to that of a native speaker” is up to the age of ten.
They tested understanding of English grammar among people of different ages, who were at different stages of learning English and who had started learning the language at different points in their life. They found that after the age of 17 or 18, people are less able to pick up the language - children older than ten still learnt the language well but had less time to become proficient before their ability to master the grammar declined.
Why is it easier for children to learn languages?
It seems intuitive that children will learn languages more readily, but is there a reason why that’s the case? While the question of ‘why’ wasn’t one that the MIT research was designed to answer, the researchers did suggest two factors that could play a part – “changes in brain plasticity” and “cultural factors” such as the changes that often happen in people’s lives from the age of 17 or 18.
In formative years, children absorb information readily. If an immersive language learning environment is created, they will be able to ‘live’ that language as opposed to just learn it. This way of learning is not only more efficient and realistic in terms of retention, it also helps young learners fully understanding the culture that comes with a language.
Tracey Chapelton, British Council teacher, suggests that children are more open to experimenting and trying things out, and in being exposed to another language at an early age they, “reap the benefits of experimenting with that language as a natural part of their development.”
Chapelton also cites a study by Dr Patricia Kuhl which identified the ability of babies to tune into each of the sounds of a language; an ability that declines when our native language begins to establish itself and we become “culture-bound listeners”.
Use it or lose it?
Such research provides a fascinating insight into the science and psychology of language learning and provides a strong argument for encouraging language subjects in school, to develop generations of bi-linguists, even multi-linguists. Beyond the school classroom though, there should be a continuation of language learning, not only for continuous improvement but to maintain the benefits that speaking languages brings.
This isn’t just about being able to extract meaning from the spoken or written word of another language, it’s about being able to understand and relate to the culture, nuances and expressions of that language. After all, people don’t learn a language by reading a dictionary – they learn by trying it out, practising and experiencing it.
British Council research discovered that nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of surveyed UK adults believe that speaking another language is an important skill, yet 75 per cent said they’d lost most of their language skills within just one year of finishing school.
Giving children the opportunity to speak more than one language and encouraging them through language learning tools that make learning exciting, fun and familiar is important. It could give them a grounding in the skills they might need to make them an attractive prospect for future employers operating in a global market. It could open up opportunities to live and work in other countries and gain experiences they might otherwise not have had. It could broaden their horizons and give them an understanding and appreciation of other cultures that will stand them in good stead in the multicultural society in which we all live and work.
In all of this, adults benefit from language learning too. What is begun in school should continue in later life to keep these options open. An employee of a global company can still benefit from improving or building language skills. Many that do, find it makes for more fulfilling conversations at work with colleagues, customers and suppliers that can lead to better results. It’s regrettable that languages should be lost after mainstream education – a sentiment echoed by 58 per cent of the adults included in the British Council’s survey who said they wished they hadn’t let language skills from their school days slip.
If the natural ability of children to absorb languages is capitalised upon within the critical period for language learning, we can hope to instill a passion that will continue through later schooling and into working life. Building and maintaining language skills benefits learners and global businesses too who need employees with a range of language skills to operate internationally.
Sabine Schnorr is Senior Director, Europe at Rosetta Stone