Scientists may finally have an explanation for why children reign supreme when it comes to learning new languages. Using MRI and animation technology to study the brains of children, researchers have discovered that children are processing language information in a different region of the brain than adults.
Different areas in the brain control different functions of our body and cognitive abilities. Automatic brain functions, things we do almost without thinking, come from the part of the brain referred to as the “deep motor area”. When children acquire language, this same part of the brain, is what they use, so the language is acquired by a deeper more fundamental part of the brain and the new language quickly becomes second nature.
But when adults learn a second or third language, their brains operate differently. The window of opportunity to imprint information and skills in the deep motor region of the brain is widest during early childhood (optimally up to 7 years old) and is nearly shut by the time we reach about 18. Therefore, adults have to store information elsewhere, in a more active brain region. As a consequence, adults usually think sentences through in a native tongue and then translate them word-by-word, instead of thinking in automatically in another language like a child would. Even for people with extensive training in a second language as an adult, who feel their speech is automatic, on a neurological level the brain is still operating differently from a child’s.
Research into the neurology of language acquisition is proving that early foreign language instruction with children under the age of 7 is also highly beneficial.
But what about even younger brains like with babies and infants, before they learn their own mother tongue? Researchers say that simply teaching young children the sounds and accents of other languages at an earlier age may be valuable, even if they are not getting full instruction in the language, because they become familiar with the sounds. Learning those sounds later in life – from a neurological perspective – can be more difficult.