It seems like magic.
Crazy multilingual hyperpolyglots are learning six or seven or twenty languages.
Others only learn one or two, but they learn them to exceptionally high levels of fluency, with the accent and local slang to pass for natives.
Babies, otherwise unable to do literally a single useful thing for themselves, make the leap from babbling poop machines to creators of fluent sentences seemingly overnight.
Even retirees, old enough to be the great grandparents of the freshest generation of two-year-olds approaching fluency in their native languages, are learning new languages later in life and doing it well.
Which raises the question: how do we genius humans, with our big brains and advanced societies, learn language?
The answer to that question is complicated, but we can tell you one thing outright: you don’t need to be wildly intelligent, especially talented or “good at languages” to learn a language.
The specifics of how you personally set out to learn a foreign language are particular to you, but for the most part, we all learn language through the same series of biological, cognitive and social processes that work exactly the same across cultures and individuals.
Now, learning our first language as a child is a different feat entirely than setting out to learn a foreign tongue as an adult. But to really get a grip on what’s going on when we’re learning foreign languages as adults, it helps to understand not just how we naturally acquire our mother tongue, but also why language is both unique to humans and ubiquitous in our societies.
Learning Language: The Thing That Makes Us Human?
You could argue that when you’re learning a language, you’re at your most human.
Language is something we all share as humans, and alongside our fancy opposable thumbs it’s one of the core characteristics that make us just a bit cooler than all the other animals.
Today there are around seven thousand languages spoken around the world, including sounds and grammatical features that can seem distinctly alien to the languages many of us are familiar with, yet all languages are in nearly every way more similar than contrasting.
Starting with the most fundamental fact, any healthy human child exposed to any language anywhere in the world will always, always learn language. There’s never once been a kid who just never quite picked it up, and there never will be.
The facts that language is universal in human societies and that we all learn it in the same way are two of the biggest pieces of evidence for the theory of Universal Grammar, one of the concepts that launched MIT linguist Noam Chomsky to fame. Universal Grammar argues that humans are born with an innate ability to learn languages and that the mechanisms that identify and interpret grammar are hardwired into the brain.
While there are tons of arguments (some more compelling and exciting than others) for different interpretations of human language, Chomsky’s theory is and has been the near-consensus among linguists since the 1970s.
Regardless of diverging thoughts on where it comes from, most of modern linguistics is in agreement that human language is essentially a system of symbols used to communicate. We use words like apple, pomme and تفاحة as symbols to point our minds to the delicious red fruit that actually has no inherent relationship to the word we’re saying. It’s just an apple or a pomme or whatever else because we say it is.
You could say that it’s this capacity for symbolic thought that makes us human, allowing us to use sounds, pictures, letters and other abstract representations of things or ideas that aren’t right in front of us.
As we climb towards fluency in our first language or any other, we’re learning how to use and understand these symbols to communicate with others and interact with the world around us. And that’s important for how we think about how we learn a language.
Child Language Acquisition: How We All Learned Our Native Language Without Cracking a Book
Nobody ever had to learn how to learn their first language. It happens whether we like it or not.
One of the reasons babies are so good at language learning is neurological: babies’ brains enjoy some special tech upgrades. While all of us were born with them, we lost them somewhere between diapers and high school Spanish.
Babies, like all humans, are experts at statistical learning: observing the overwhelming amounts of linguistic information they’re presented with every day and making exceptionally accurate generalizations about the patterns they deduce. Every time you say “bottle” with bottle in hand, the infant brain jots down some notes on the possible relationship between the sounds it’s hearing and their possible relationship to that object in Mom’s hand.
But they’re also busy investigating when you use “in” versus “on,” why you sometimes call yourself “I” and sometimes “me,” and what happens when a familiar verb gets an “-ing” at the end of it.
Listening, analyzing and collecting statistical samples is only half of the story of child language learning.
We can think of the other half as the “use it or lose it” principle.
In combination with the masses of statistical data they gather, children employ social language learning strategies to truly master their mother tongues. This is the reason behind another universal linguistic truth: no child will ever learn a language without human interaction.
It’s through combining the statistical with the social that babies finally start taking off at breakneck speed and using their language to interact with other humans around one year of age. “Want milk” makes Daddy bring the bottle, “again” makes Mommy come back for another round of peek-a-boo and “what’s that” becomes the key to unlocking all the world’s secrets.
Adult Language Acquisition: How We Learn Language, How We Can’t and How We Should
The two key components of child language acquisition—statistical and social learning—are the same ones at play when adults learn languages. But both the adult brain and, more importantly, the adult social life feature some key differences from those of children.
Adult language learning is basically the same game, just with different rules.
Being a grown-up is hard: why we can’t learn language exactly like babies do
Setting out to learn a language like a baby is a great strategy, as long as you remember that you’re doing it like a baby, with the differences between child and adult language learning in mind.
Since both the statistical nuts and bolts and the social use of language are the main cruxes of language learning, you may not be surprised that they figure in differently to the lives of three-year-olds and thirty-year-olds.
It’s understanding these differences that can help you learn a language like your younger self.
Here are some of the key differences adult language learners should be aware of as they embark on learning a new language:
- Adults already speak at least one language fluently. Yes, you already have some language skills. But this can actually be a problem. One way of explaining why babies always beat us in language learning is that we as adults are actually so incredibly good at our mother tongues that it confuses the way we think about language in general. Your first language hardwires your brain for language learning and has a huge impact on any language learning that follows.
- Adults respond to social sanctioning, where children mostly don’t. Babies aren’t afraid to make mistakes. If it takes them two tries or twenty to get a grammar rule or a pronunciation down, they’ll keep coming back until they’ve got it. Adults, on the other hand, are particularly susceptible to shame and embarrassment. We’re afraid of looking stupid in front of others, so we protect ourselves by using a new language too conservatively (being afraid to try out new words and forms we think we might understand) or not speaking at all.
- Adults communicate in mostly equal relationships. A baby’s main conversation partners are her parents and other adults, who naturally adapt their speech to accommodate children’s less advanced linguistic abilities. Adults, on the other hand, are used to communicating as equals. The vast majority of your speech exchanges in a foreign language force you to engage with the same level and speed of speech as native speakers.
- Other things demand our attention. Babies as a group tend to have sky-high unemployment rates, which means they’re free to dedicate absolutely all of their time to learning their mother tongue. For adults, between jobs and errands and relationships and the thousand other things we need to do every day just to keep ourselves afloat, finding the time to learn a language can be a challenge.
- Adults have to try. This is the biggest difference: a baby just needs to hang around for a couple years not doing much of anything, and their linguistically awesome brains take care of the learning for them. As adults, our brains are less plastic and more resistant to change, which means we have to push them, and sometimes all that trying just makes things worse.
In essence, how adults and children learn language is really the same. We observe native speakers, identify patterns in the language (statistical learning) and then we test those patterns by interacting with other people, using their feedback to correct and better nuance the patterns we’ve deduced (social learning).
What really changes between childhood and adulthood is both our brains and our lives.
But the first doesn’t change as much as you might think, and we have enough control over the second to keep it from squashing our multilingual ambitions.
Brain plasticity and the critical period: the neuro-acrabatics of how we learn language
If there’s one specific thing that separates how children learn language from how we as adults learn language, it’s the critical period.
The critical period of language learning refers to the period of a child’s life, from birth until somewhere between age 5 and puberty according to various experts, in which they’re uniquely neurologically prepared to acquire a language. Studies show that there is in fact a critical period for all language learning, even sign language.
The trademark feature of the critical period is what gives babies their ultimate language learning advantage: increased brain plasticity.
This means that babies’ brains are uniquely adapted to growing and changing quickly, whereas our adult brains generally become less plastic over time. And physically growing your brain isn’t just one of the benefits of learning a language, but also a requirement for it.
So, how do we as adults account for our decreased brain plasticity and the practical factors that make it harder for us to learn languages?
5 Key Language Learning Tips That Unlock Your Brain’s Potential
Using what we know about how both adults and children learn language, we can make our brains learn language faster and better as adults.
The following lessons and tips are all aimed at navigating the constraints of learning a language as an adult, increasing your brain plasticity and doing your best to incorporate the strategies of a child language learner into the life and reality of an adult language learner:
1. Even though our brain’s mechanisms for language learning are severely weakened around puberty, we can re-strengthen them as adults. Just by starting to learn a new language you’re reawakening these parts of your brain. Borrowing learning strategies from child learners helps the process.
Retraining your brain to learn second languages more easily, like you did as a child, might be one of the best language learning advantages you can give yourself.
2. Adults and children both rely heavily on statistical learning, but they do so in very different ways. Babies’ brains are like sponges, whereas adults’ are more like cups: dump liters and liters of language on and around the first and it’ll get soaked up, but the second is useless unless the language is poured directly and purposefully into it.
Adult language learners need to actively pursue and dedicate time to their language learning, as well as acquire language input purposefully.
3. Social interaction is indispensable, but it works differently for adults and children. Babies’ lives are filled with a few unequal relationships with caretakers and loved ones who become personally attuned to the child’s speech and learning. It’s like having a flock of attentive, patient and understanding personal tutors round the clock.
Adults, however, lack the guiding light of “motherese,” and instead have to use their language to navigate complicated adult interactions. Adult learners need extra patience and dedication for getting through these interactions, especially in the earlier stages of learning.
4. While most adults can only recognize speech sounds present in their own language, your ears can be “reset” to learn new speech sounds naturally. Part of learning a language as a baby is strategically narrowing the range of speech sounds listened to and focusing in on the ones that matter in your language, but you can retrain your ears and regain your ability to recognize and interpret new sounds that you haven’t previously given meaning to.
Adult learners must be prepared to work extra hard to both understand and be able to pronounce new sounds in the languages they learn.
5. Adults can achieve native-like fluency in a language learned later in life, but only under certain circumstances. Certain immersive language situations can lead adult language learners to develop native-like pronunciation, usage and even psycho-linguistic processing of a second language. Some learners who also follow other best practices attain and retain the brain activity patterns of native speakers, which may also imply a native-like understanding of the language. Adult learners generally benefit most from immersion or immersion-like learning settings.
It’s true that there are a lot of important differences between how children and adult learn languages, and it’s clear that babies have some distinct advantages over older learners, but adults also enjoy certain language learning advantages over their tiny crawling counterparts.
While it’s been a popular urban myth for decades that only children can really learn languages and learn them, well, nowadays we can definitively say we know better.
Language is inherently human, and humans are always changing, which might be why we’re able to miraculously revive our childlike abilities for language acquisition and literally grow and reshape our brains when we want to or need to.
So, now that you know a bit more about what learning a language looks like inside your head, you can start learning a foreign language today!
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