Adults can learn a second language as fast as children, reports a new study—and it’s only the conditions in which a child learns a second language that’s given kids a reputation as such fast learners.
This means that adults can develop the increased neural connections typical of bilingual individuals that can, by themselves, stave off dementia by four years, as well as make traveling a heck of a lot easier.
For children, learning a second language increases the number of neural pathways between grey matter areas, and more rapidly breaks down and rebuilds existing pathways with more conceptual capacity.
This translates at home and in the classroom to better memory, increased focus, reduced vulnerability to distractions, and even earlier aptitudes at multi-tasking.
Beyond that, it gives parents more reason to dive into a second language as part of a family effort, as further research has shown learning a language as a family improves everyone’s abilities and gives opportunities for learning that are mostly absent from classroom settings.
Nature vs nurture
Many studies have shown that children’s propensity for learning a second language far exceeds that of adults, but recent research from the University of Kansas’ department of linguistics has demonstrated that’s not necessarily true.
In an examination of Spanish second-language learners, the researchers found that after minimal training, the brain activity between sentences that relied on grammatical features unique to each language resembled that of native speakers.
In other words, the brain activity within an English speaker saying, writing, and reading: “Las flores son hermosas,” or “the flowers are beautiful,” is identical to that found in the brain of a Spanish speaker, despite the fact that this target sentence uses grammatical features not found in English, such as gender and number agreements.
“I think it’s cause for optimism for university foreign language instruction. It shows that, even with limited exposure in the college classroom, learning can happen quite quickly and efficiently,” said KU linguistics professor Alison Gabriele, the co-author of the paper, to Language Magazine.
Another study published in the Journal of Child Language found that adults aged forty and children responded exactly the same to explicit language-learning instruction, reinforcing the hypothesis stated earlier that it’s the environment in which the child and the adult learn that has created the difference.
This reporter has taught English in China, and speaks Italian at a fluent level. Children learn together with friends, by playing games, watching videos, and switching between listening, writing, reading, and speaking. The emphasis on the class is often about fun, or at least takes place in a relaxed setting.
Adults on the other hand tend to learn languages in more traditionally academic ways, as well as being much more susceptible to fear of making mistakes.
Learning a language as a family, then, improves the level of immersion needed to truly grasp a second language, as it brings the learning methods which characterize the perception of children’s more rapid development into the home for the benefit of the adults as well.
A bilingual home
In an interview with Christine Jernigan, author of Family Language Learning: Learn Another Language, Raise Bilingual Children, National Geographic reports that as far as immersion goes, practicing a second language with people is the most important aspect, and who talks to each other more than a family?
Language learners need to be brave and ready to make mistakes and receive feedback. Most people will be far more comfortable making mistakes around family members than in a classroom setting.
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Furthermore, any home activity, whether that’s gardening, playing in the yard, watching movies, going shopping, cleaning, or cooking a meal, becomes an opportunity for language learning.
Jernigan recommends preparing vocabulary before an activity and using it as short coursework.
Going shopping? Make the list in your target language. Playing board games? Use the target language to explain the rules. Tending to the garden? Make signs for every plant in the target language. Family movie night? Watch the movie in your target language; Jernigan recommends using subtitles too, so you can see which words are being used.
A language is also about writing, so try and exchange text messages in the target language for a day, or for a week.
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If a family is trying to take the learning to a higher level, join a speaking group at a community center or university, where one can meet other people in the area practicing the target language.
Learning a second language is one of the three most common New Years resolutions in America, and now this research essentially removes the major barrier to entry: the idea that if you’re older than 16, you’ve missed your chance.
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