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Ask a scientist
In this feature, Canadian scientists answer questions about biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy and other science topics.
Question: Why do five-year-olds learn new languages so much faster than adults?
Answer: For a variety of reasons, young children do learn languages faster than adults, especially the grammar — the rules about how to combine words into sentences. But the ability of both children and adults to learn new languages varies among individuals.
Interestingly, adults are better than kids at most things such as math, learning facts, and evaluating information. Even learning new vocabulary is something we as adults do throughout our lives. But when it comes to our ability to learn a second language, several factors come into play. One is the relationship between the language we’re learning and the language we know first — our mother tongue. If these two languages have similar words and sentence structures, such as French and Spanish, then we’re likely to learn the second language more easily than someone whose first language is more linguistically distant — such as English and Korean. To some extent, we use what we know about one language to learn a second or third.
Young children go about learning language differently from adults. They have a smaller memory capacity so they end up focusing on smaller chunks. They pay more attention to the most important parts of a sentence, effectively filtering out details that might overwhelm an adult. This simpler approach might be one of the things that give kids an advantage.
Why learning languages gets harder
Another reason it gets harder to learn a language as we get older is something called “neural commitment.” The idea here is that when our brain is first exposed to language, learning occurs by strengthening and weakening connections between neurons. With years of using our first language (or languages), these connections become more hard-wired and therefore harder to change later when learning a new language. Learning new languages essentially competes for some of those same neural pathways, and it’s hard to re-wire the pathways.
Another aspect that helps young children learn languages faster is their learning environment. Most often, children are surrounded by people speaking the language they are learning, so they are immersed in it. Adults often try learning in classroom settings, but aren’t using the new language throughout the day. Children are also less inhibited about using the words and sentences they are learning, and less self-conscious about making mistakes.
There are some differences in brain activity in people who learned a language during a younger versus an older stage of life. One key brain region for language processing, called Broca’s area, is located in the left frontal lobe. Brain scans of people who learned languages at an older age show more activity in Broca’s area than people who learn languages earlier in life. When people are first learning a new language, this part of the brain also shows more activity. But as people become more proficient at the language, Broca’s area becomes less active. In other words, once we become good at something our brain doesn’t have to work as hard.
Some studies show that when people are first learning a new language, they rely heavily on parts of the brain that are involved with memory (to memorize vocabulary). As learning progresses, different parts of the brain kick in that are associated with the rules of language — i.e. grammar. This transition from memorizing to using generalized rules is a vital part of processing language fluently, and older people might have more trouble making the transition.
As for adults who learn languages easily, it’s unclear at this point what gives them this ability. An important factor may be motivation. Often, people who learn multiple languages enjoy travelling and being immersed in new cultures. They like communicating with people and are less inhibited about speaking the first bits of a new language they learn — in some ways, this is similar to how children learn.
Research is now focused on tracking people of different ages as they learn a new language and seeing how brain activity changes as they gain skill. Such research will help us better understand how languages are learned, and how learning can be improved.
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