Countless studies conducted by psychologists and linguists across the globe have produced varying results when it comes to the idea that children are better at learning foreign languages than adults. While adults have some benefits over children, the data overwhelmingly suggests that kids have the marked advantage.
So what’s the science behind this phenomenon?
Using MRI and animation technology, researchers at UCLA and Cornell University have found that children actually process language information differently than adults. An adult brain devotes a specific area to processing a native language and another area to processing a foreign language. A child’s brain, on the other hand, makes no spatial distinction in processing a native or foreign language. As a consequence, adults usually think sentences through in their native tongue and then translate them word-by-word, instead of automatically thinking in another language like a child would. Even for adults who have extensive training in a second language as an adult and who feel their speech is automatic, their neurons are firing differently.
And what is the benefit of learning a foreign language early?
In an article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell quotes renowned scientist James Flynn, as saying: “The mind is much more like a muscle than we’ve ever realized…It needs to get cognitive exercise. It’s not some piece of clay on which you put an indelible mark.” This is especially true for children who typically have increased plasticity of learning and memory.
There are many positive reasons why children should learn a second language before their teenage years. Here are three to consider:
• Better command of native language – Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., says, “The more children learn about a foreign language, the more they understand about their own language.” Children use what they learn in one language to reinforce concepts and terms they’ve learned in the other. Bilingual children often become more advanced in their oral and written communication skills than their peers.
• Improved school performance and problem-solving skills – Research has shown that students who acquired a second language before their teenage years statistically score higher on standardized tests in their native language in both verbal and quantitative skills. Early acquisition of a foreign language increases the amount of gray matter in the brain which is responsible for processing information. So if you want your student to have a leg up on the SAT, start him on a foreign language early!
• Marketability in an increasingly globalized economy – Every year employers across the country place more and more value on candidates who are multi-lingual. Building fluency in foreign languages early on not only increases a child’s future skill set but also makes it easier for her to pick up new languages as an adult. It’s never too early to plan ahead!
Schools are increasingly incorporating foreign languages into elementary school curricula. Several Massachusetts counties were recently in the news for implementing 20 minutes of Spanish instruction per day into their standard Kindergarten curriculum; however, our schools in the DC area are not quite at that stage yet. Fairfax County, for example, currently offers immersion and foreign language instruction at select elementary schools as well as the FLEX and GLOBAL programs, which are before and after school foreign language programs for elementary aged students.
What can you do now?
Ken Stewart, the 2006 ACTFL National language teacher of the year, states that the research points to the benefits of starting a second language as early as three years of age and maintaining continuous contact with the language. Parents should speak up for language education in their communities. Many elementary level programs have been implemented based on parent demand.
While there are plenty of online resources and computer programs for teaching foreign languages, there is no replacement for individualized, interactive instruction. Language learning is a social activity and a tutor can readily engage a student in dialogue to get them to re-think or more readily understand concepts. A private tutor can be an excellent resource for teaching a second language to a student who doesn’t have the opportunity to do so through school.