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When can we learn languages?

By Laetitia Knight

Learning another language is perceived as an almost impossible challenge by some people whereas others pick them up naturally and painlessly. What makes the experience of learning a foreign language a pleasure or a torture?

Human beings tend to enjoy what they can do well and dislike situations where they are unsuccessful. Therefore, it is important to identify methods of learning that will work best for particular individuals. There is no one way of acquiring an additional language because many factors play a role in the process. However, researchers have explained several important implications of the age factor in language acquisition.

Age is often used as an excuse for not being successful. A common idea is that only babies who have been exposed to a foreign language can become fully bilingual. “I’m too old to now learn another language” is widely heard from people who would not consider themselves too old for other adventurous activities. Both these common and popular beliefs have been questioned by linguists.

Three windows of opportunity exist when the brain is better equipped to absorb languages.

The first window is from birth to the age of nine months and represents the ideal age to become fully bilingual. A baby who hears two languages from birth acquires these languages simultaneously and will be able to function in both equally.

However, one language is often used more than the other because there might be more speakers of one language in the child’s immediate environment. At such an early age, the language of the main care giver(s) is essential and it is through that language that a child answers his needs and discovers how to communicate.

In our socially changing world, some linguists have questioned the term ‘mother tongue’.  Mothers can work, be away from home or be required to speak another language from their own.  Too often we hear mums speaking, with varying degrees of accuracy, a language that is not their own because of a discriminatory system of ranking languages, believing that their child benefits more from hearing English for example. Unfortunately this is the quickest path to mother tongue loss.

Should we talk of ‘father tongue’ when a language is transmitted by a more present dad or because the language of the dad is perceived as a majority language essential to have?

If two languages coexist in a family, do the children have two mother tongues without having two mothers? Besides, it is frequent today to use three or more languages used in different daily situations. In expatriate communities such as Bali, some children are taken care of by nannies who lovingly speak Bahasa Indonesia or Balinese to them. In many cases, it becomes the first language toddlers will utter. Will the expression ‘nanny tongue’ ever enter the linguistic jargon?

Members of the same family can also use code-switching, that is using more than one language in the same sentence, because it allows them to say exactly what they mean or feel and take references from two cultural systems.

These examples of nonsensical expressions or lack of terms to describe linguistic situations are proofs of a more mobile world population where social conventions are evolving.

In practice, if parents have the opportunity to introduce a foreign language in the first window of opportunity, they should not miss it. Parents and carers must speak their own language consistently, no matter how many languages coexist in the immediate environment of the child. It is proved that there is no risk of overloading the brain. Today three quarters of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual.

After the first window of opportunity up the age of four, children gradually lose the ability to hear, discriminate and imitate foreign sounds. During this period, children who have a good ear are still able to pick up a language naturally and painlessly.
The second window of opportunity starts at four until seven years old. Children are then aware that they are learning another language. The experience and outcomes differ, depending on the method used and the degree of support from the environment. In schools, programs vary. Some courses concentrate on verbal communication while others also aim to develop literacy skills. To become fully bilingual reading and writing should be ultimately acquired in both languages. However, writing in a foreign language is one of the most demanding activities we can ask our brain to do. Whatever the aptitude of your child, the best methods take into account the various ways children learn and their multiple intelligences.

The last window covers the period between eight years old to old age.  Learners are fully aware and, depending on personality, inhibitions can hinder progress. Students might find it difficult to take risks to communicate.

These more mature students are frequently asked to listen, speak, read and write all at the same time. This is highly demanding for some people and can cause discouragement and loss of motivation. Adults often need to understand the system of a language and make comparisons with their own to learn patterns. They want explanations and this attitude places them further away from the natural acquisition of younger children.

On the other hand, adults already have solid linguistic skills and, if they have the right motivation, they can learn much more efficiently and at a faster pace than children. Neurolinguists discovered that languages acquired at different times in someone’s life are stored in different parts of the brain when they studied monolingual and multilingual patients who had suffered a stroke. Language of monolinguals is mainly located in the left hemisphere of the brain while multilinguals tend to use the right side for additional languages. Interestingly, multilinguals have a large overlap where transfer of knowledge occurs. However, this cognitive transfer only takes place if the person has reached a high level in his main language. This finding supports the importance of maintaining and continuing progress in one’s mother tongue even when we want to learn another language. Neglecting a child’s mother tongue can lead to subtractive bilingualism, where the child will not be fully proficient in any language.

Acquiring languages is complex and depends on the circumstances of each individual but ultimately, it is never too late to learn a language. We need to take the chances when they present themselves, decide on the best method and environment to be successful. Languages must not be considered as an obstacle but rather an invaluable insight into cultures and people. Once acquired, they become an integral part of our identity.

Our thanks to Laetitia Chanéac-Knight, Language teacher and author of Bali with Kids

© Laetitia Knight