When learning languages, is the earlier the better?

Multilingual Parents are often keen to speak several languages with their children and can't wait to introduce more languages. In the end: the sooner the better, right?

Well, not really. If we shower our children with a lot of languages from early on, without them needing them it can become a challenge to maintain them. Also, there is no window that closes "à tout jamais" / "forever" when it comes to language learning!

Research about the "Critical Period Hypothesis" first focused on monolinguals, and has since been adopted also for additional (second/third) language learning. It was originally describing a "closing window" for first language acquisition, and refers to the concept of a critical period in the biological sciences, which is a set period in which an organism must acquire a skill or ability, for the organism not being able to otherwise acquire it later in life.

Research has since fine tuned on some aspects of language acquisition like our youngest one's understanding language and re-producing (articulating) sounds, compared to older children.

What most people seem to retain from this is that "young children acquire and learn languages "much easier" than older ones or adults".

But the "much easier" needs to be clarified: young children acquire language in a more spontaneous, natural way, by repeating, making mistakes, finding out the patterns (aka underlying grammar) of the language, the "easier" way refers to the fact that the process is more "unconscious". They can articulate sounds easier than adults, due to their palate being still soft – it hardens during puberty, making articulation more difficult.

Furthermore, the older the child, the more conscious every learning process becomes, and the "less easier" it is described or considered, which, if we think about the lifelong learning journey, is just not very accurate.

The "much easier" learning in early years is rather more "intuitive/natural/spontaneous", whereas the "less easier" later is a more conscious way of learning which, on the other hand, profits from the already acquired patterns, logics and cognitive skills the person has acquired by then. In fact, older learners are better at learning the language on a morphological and syntactical level.

 

Brain lateralization was once seen as a possible neurological cause, but this theoretical cause has been largely discredited since lateralization does not necessarily increase with age, and there is no definite link between language learning ability and brain lateralization... The advantage of the children's brain is "the still in development phase" of the prefrontal cortex (which takes up to 20ish years to "complete"!) which makes things "easier to learn" but also easier to forget or drop if not needed. So: it is easier for young children to "absorb a considerable quantity of data", and this is the "advantage".

 

But one needs to know that the young brain doesn't distinguish between "good or bad", "useful or not useful". This unconscious or absorbent mind (Maria Montessori) has its advantages, but also disadvantages. The advantages are that it absorbs everything, "like a sponge". This is most probably where the assumption that children "absorb everything" comes from.

 

The disadvantages of this "absorbing everything" is that when it is not needed, it will be pruned. In fact "use it or lose it" is a very easy way to explain how the brain works. I invite you to watch this short video about the adolescent brain and learn more about the myelination that is so important to make learning faster and more efficient!

 

 

 

Although children's brains have a massive growth spurt when they are very young, by the time they are six, their brains are already about 90-95% of adult size. The early years are a critical time for brain development, however, the brain needs a lot of remodeling before it can function as an adult brain.

 


About the Critical Period Hypothesis, please watch our interview with Prof. Shiro Ojima and the one with Prof. Arturo Hernandez about "How children and adults learn languages" at Raising Multilinguals Live:

 

 

 

 

 

What is needed and used regularly (!) will be consolidated and will help with further learning. We all never stop learning – unless we stop being curious. In this interview with Dr. Thomas H Bak we talk about bilingualism and the brain,

 

 

The learning experience and the skills we hone change over time, and that is what makes people assume that "the earlier the better" because young children, who, like briefly mentioned above, have a malleable palate, i.e. that allows an easier articulation of sounds, sound like "perfect native speakers" very quickly, whereas older learners, whose palate has hardened and who therefore need more practice to "sound" native, are thought to be unable to reach high levels of fluency.

But older learners make up for this by bringing experience, acquired and learned patterns and consolidated pathways that allow them to quicker understand how the other language works and can be used. The way we learn and understand changes over time and depends on many factors, but we can learn languages – and all kinds of skills for that matter! – at any age.

 

Here is a short video I made about this topic:

 

When our children grow up with 2-4 languages already, the seeds for easier access to additional languages later in life are planted, and it will be much easier for them to learn any additional language at any stage. There are more windows of opportunities, like shown in this video about the adolescent brain by UNICEF:

 

 

Adolescence is a very intense period of significant growth and development inside the teenage brain. The main change is that connections that are not used in the thinking and processing part of the brain (i.e. the grey matter) are pruned, and those that are used are strengthened. This is the way our brain becomes more efficient and follows the "use it or lose it" principle mentioned before.

In this interview with Frances Díaz-Evans, a Latina educator, author, wife and mom to a teenager, we talked about this aspect in the context of How parents can help their teenagers in their language learning journey

 

 

 

 

So to answer the question of the title: no. The earlier is not "the better", it's the "easier" in terms of understanding language patterns in the most unconscious and natural way, but later language learning has its other advantages as the older learner can build on acquired and learned patterns easier. What is better or best though, is to keep stimulating our children's brains from the beginning, through childhood and beyond, and make sure they are up to a lifelong learning journey that keep their brains healthy and their minds curious as long as possible.

 

This topic is highly discussed among experts and this post is an "ongoing" one, that I am happy to update with further insights and research findings. If you are a researcher, please let me know what you know and think in the comments. I'll be more than happy to include it in the post if it helps to clarify the topic.

 

 

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  1. Pingback: The bilingual brain – Ute's International Lounge

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