We hear it all the time: the earlier the better! We know that the younger children are, the easier it is for them to learn languages. And we see the evidence before us; adults have accents in their learned languages, but children, somehow, don't!
What, exactly, is going on? And how, as parents, can we help the process along?
Babies and Children Can Hear More Sounds Than Adults
In her book, Raising a Bilingual Child: A step-by-step guide for parents, Dr. Barbara Zurer Pearson says that it begins with sound. From the moment they can start hearing their parents speak or sing from the womb, babies begin listening and cataloging all the different sounds they hear. What's notable, is that from the time they are born, babies give the same preference to sounds from any language spoken to them. Their little brains are able to distinguish the different ways the d in Hindi can sound, and they hear the various pronunciations of the r in Spanish, and the l vs r sound in Japanese...all sounds that give us English-speaking adults so much difficulty.
At around six months, babies start giving preference to the language(s) spoken to them. It's around this time that if, out of the blue, you spoke to a baby in a foreign language, the baby would stare at you in that way babies do when they're learning something new.
Why does this matter? Their ability to hear sounds in other languages better than adults, makes them better at pronouncing those sounds when they start speaking. Hence the perfect little accents they have.
Help from Billions of New Neural Connections
As babies and young children learn, they can form somewhere around 1 million new neural connections per second, according to Harvard's Center on the Developing Child. It's during this time, when everything is new and synapses are rapidly forming, that kids are the most open to learning languages. Starting around two or three, a process called pruning begins, where the overabundance of connections between neurons gets whittled down according to what the brain deems important. If exposure to a language stops, for example, those synapses are allowed to fall away.
Since, by the time we are adults, we are no longer making new synapses at such a rapid rate, we rely on already established neural pathways to learn new languages and sounds. In other words, we filter new languages through our old ones. It works, but it's why we speak with accents, and it's the reason for many of our awkward grammatical errors.
Children Have Biological Advantages For Language
"Infants," says Dr. Barbara Zurer Pearson, "are born with very acute hearing—more so than most young animals. They prefer complex sounds (like speech)...and can make fine discriminations between them."
Babies eyes are drawn to human faces, and this biological preference for the faces of their care-takers, help them begin to connect meaning to the sounds coming from our mouths.
Increased Brain Activity
Babies' brains work twice as hard adults', with increased blood flow and metabolic activity in their brains. This is what allows them to make more new connections between neurons, and at a faster rate than adults do. The rapid growth that we measure by how often they grow out of their shoes, is happening in their brains too. And it gives them an ability to learn language that adults don't have.
How Children Crack the Language Code
The last biological feature that Dr. Zurer Pearson emphasizes, is the natural ability children have to find patterns and order in, well, everything. How much do children love sorting tiny treasures? How much do they cling to routine, whether good or bad: "We ate chocolate before bedtime last night! Why not tonight?!"
You can also see it in language: when children make mistakes in a language, it's usually because they don't know the exception to whatever the grammar rule is. They learn the rules very quickly and are experts at adhering to them. That's why you might hear your child say, "My favorite toy broked at school today." The rule says to add an -ed to a verb to make it past tense, your kid is sticking to the language pattern she knows. She hasn't learned yet that there's an exception and she should say, broke. (Let's not tell her yet...it's so cute.)
This ability to seek out structure in language, is why we don't have to sit children down and teach them a first language. Instead of drilling them on vocab, grammar, and pronunciation, we just talk. With enough input, their brains sort it out.
How Parents Can Help Boost Language Learning
Hopefully, you have noticed that we haven't mentioned anything about how children acquire second and third languages. That's because if you're introducing new languages early enough, the process is the same.
Children are capable of learning multiple languages at once, and even of having two "first languages," even if one is more dominant than the other (which is often the case).
We teach children our native language by talking, singing, reading, and playing. To introduce a new language to a child, do those same things in the new language. Based on all the extensive research done in this area, Mi Casa Es Tu Casa® created a unique program that does just that; it's the perfect way to offer early exposure to Spanish through music and play. The singing, the movements in class, the props used, and facial expressions of the teachers, parents, and care-givers, help the children begin to connect the sounds they're hearing with meaning. You're not alone! And now is the time!
Find the best Mi Casa Es Tu Casa® class for the upcoming semester!
Alice Gray is a writer and editor living in Austin, Texas. She has attended classes at Mi Casa es Tu Casa® since her daughter was 2 years old, and is a big believer in the benefits of early childhood movement, music, language, play, and connection.