by Nira Datta
Medical Writer/Editor, AboutKidsHealth
Medical Writer/Editor, AboutKidsHealth
Canadian-born, Christopher Woon was just a baby when he was first exposed to the mother tongue from his parents. While growing up in the English-speaking community of Port Hope, Ontario, he spoke exclusively in Korean in the house. Up until he was about 6, he would spend his summers visiting family in South Korea, and a few hours a day at a Hagwon, a private Korean summer school. Now, 15, Christopher is completely fluent in both languages. “I’ve watched all 140 episodes of Daejyoung,” he says of the Korean historic drama series, “and they don’t contain subtitles,” he grins while sitting across a small Korean CD and DVD store. Being so well versed in Korean and English, occasionally, he speaks a bit of ‘Konglish’ – a mixture of Korean and English. “Sometimes I’ll ask my sister to pass me the mool (water).”
Like Christopher, many kids who grow up bilingual are better at acquiring a second language compared to those who learned it when they are older. “If there is anything humans are extremely robust for, its language,” says Dr. Tracy Solomon, Developmental Psychologist at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). “No other non-human primate can produce a fluent and generative language as we can.”
Our built-in linguistic capacity however, is most optimal when we’re young.
The plastic brain
“Our brains are more plastic for language when we’re younger,”explains Dr. Solomon. The malleability of the brain means it can fire its neurons and change its neural connections more easily. Forming new neural links is what facilitates learning. As a result, when one is exposed to language early on in life, the more neural connections are formed, and the more refined they become as we get older.
The biological window
Studies show that we are most open to learning new language when the brain is at its ripest stage: as babies. Using a ‘head-turning test’, psychologists trained babies to turn their head every-time they heard a new sound. What they found was that a baby’s brain has a remarkable ability to recognize and discriminate the phonetic pattern of any language from any country in the world. This innate flair for language is at its brightest up until about age 7, after which point it begins to fade. Soon after puberty, this ability vanishes. It’s not that we can’t acquire new language when we’re older; it’s just that we are much better at it before we hit our teens. This built in window for language has long been known, but why does it work this way?
The brain does it for economy
In a similar study, psychologists used the head-turning test on babies who live in Tokyo and Seattle. Between the ages of six to eight months, both American and Japanese babies were just as good at distinguishing the sounds ‘ra’ and ‘la’, common in English but nearly absent in Japanese. But two months later, something changes: the babies in Seattle got a lot better at distinguishing these sounds, while the babies in Japan got a lot worse. What happens is at some point around our first birthday, the brain selects which sounds it needs for the language it will continue to learn. “It’s as though for economy the brain is honing in on just the sounds that it’s going to need so that kids can really start making those mappings,” explains Dr. Solomon. In other words, ‘ra’ and ‘la’ sounds quickly become hidden to Japanese babies because they don’t need them. And once lost, they are difficult to get back.
One brain, many languages
Some parent’s may worry that exposing more than one language to a child may inundate and confuse them. But Dr. Solomon says there’s no need to worry. Children have a remarkable ability to ‘code-switch’: they can swap between languages and the way they are used depending on the situation. The part of the brain that might help bilinguals flip between each linguistic neural pathway is the left-inferior frontal cortex (LIFC), which is involved in language processing. When Spanish-English bilinguals speak English, they show more blood-flow in the LIFC; but not when monolinguals speak English. This may mean that the LIFC is involved in helping bilinguals suppress one language, while speaking the other.
Bilinguals prime their cognitive skills
By flipping between separate linguistic caches, bilinguals are priming their cognitive control skills all the time. “If you can use English in school and you go home and speak your mother tongue at home, that simple shift [of language] is good for the brain,” says Peter Chaban, an education expert and AboutKidsHealth columnist. For example, Christopher can only say mool by holding back the equivalent English word water at the same time, which takes a lot of focus and control. These enhanced skills in attentiveness are part of the reason why children who are multilingual do better in school.
Along with being more attentive, bilinguals are more flexible in their thinking. “When you are raised in a multilingual environment, you by definition have more than one way of expressing the same thing,” says Dr. Solomon. This cognitive flexibility enables bilinguals to develop different perspectives on the same situation and adapt to changing situations. As a result, they develop greater sensitivity and empathy to another point of view. For Christopher, learning Korean goes beyond just knowing how to speak it; it also gives him a Korean perspective, which helps him develop a deeper understanding of the culture.
The role of the parent
While learning more than one language is a great way to develop a child’s cognitive skills, this ability is also influenced by how much support the child gets at home. A child can only reap the benefits of learning more than one language if she has the right emotional support at home.
We need to hear language to learn it
What is the best way to teach a child a new language? Talk to them. Although we can all naturally acquire new language, we need aural stimulation to be able to learn it. This may be why immersion works so well. Unsurprisingly, a child’s success in immersion is also influenced by how much support they get at home. Any parent who emphasizes language and sees it as an investment will influence their child’s attitude towards learning the language.
Some parents may be apprehensive of the extra workload or whether the new language might distract a child from learning other subjects such as math and science. But many experts say that the second language doesn’t seem to hinder kids. Studies show that students struggling in math and science in French immersion experience the same challenges when placed in an English stream. “We’re pattern detectors. We naturally glom on to patterns and quickly get used to the ‘rules’ of the language,” says Dr. Solomon, adding that our strong primal tendency to acquire new language makes it hard to imagine it would be an impediment to learning other subjects.