Guten tag, Seekers! Interesting news this week from the linguistics desk. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that, while it’s easier to acquire a new language as kid, adults are actually better and faster at consciously learning a second tongue. So there’s still time. Mach schnell!
As Sapna Parikh explains in today’s DNews dispatch, linguists and neuroscientists have been study the phenomenon of second language acquisition for a long time. In 1967, researcher Eric Lenneberg popularized the Critical Period Hypothesis, which proposed that certain age ranges are ideal for acquiring a new language.
In this particular area, linguists make a distinction between acquisition and learning. Acquiring a second language is a largely subconscious process, and kids are definitely better at it. That’s because children’s brains are much better at creating new synapses — the connective junctions where neurons talk to one another using electrical and chemical signals.
Here’s a statistic you can drop to impress friends and neighbors: In brain development, the first few years after birth are known as the exuberant period and synapses form more quickly than at any other time in our lives. Properly revved up, little kids’ brains create up to two million new synapses per second.
Anyway, Lennenberg’s hypothesis suggests that the ideal window for kids to acquire a new second language is between the ages of 2 and 13. That’s the same time kids are processing their first language, of course, and it’s why so many school encourage very early adoption oflanguage immersion programs.
Kids are also good at active learning, as opposed to passive acquisition, for much the same reason: supercharged synapses. But adults are better at certain aspects of language learning than kids. Grown-up brains are optimized for processing complex thoughts and concepts. With some conspicuous exceptions.
That makes us faster than the little whipper-snappers at picking up a second language, so long as we’re actively focused on learning. There are other factors at play, too. It turns out that your general personality type can impact language learning — outgoing types are much more likely to get out there, converse with others, practice, and make mistakes.
Then there’s the matter of motivation. Studies have shown that adults will learn a language much more quickly if there’s a potential partner involved — a new boyfriend or girlfriend with whom you wish to communicate. One more reason to ask out that hot new German barista at the coffee shop. Nicht wahr?