It’s been noted time and again that immersion is the greatest technique to learn another language. When you don’t have your native language as an option, you are forced to communicate with whatever you have in your brain. As an adult immersed in another lingual setting, you may have some reservation. Your insecurities will flare and you may freeze, at least at first. Eventually, you will find yourself utilizing the language as you never dreamed. For kids, this second phase comes MUCH faster.
We recently visited Turkey for almost three weeks. Prior to that, we had two Turkish visitors in our home for three weeks. In this time, my almost four-year-old son went from speaking utterances of Turkish mixed with English to speaking full-blown sentences in Turkish. He even started using verb tenses that don’t even exist in English, and he did so correctly. Today, settled back in his comfortable routine with primarily English surrounding him, he speaks virtually zero English to his father. Truly encouraging as I was starting to feel real discouragement over the summer.
Children’s brains are incredible. Their ability to pick up new languages with seemingly little effort is truly fascinating to witness. In my own study into other languages and how we learn languages, this is due to a few things and I’ll briefly cover a couple of them in this post. One of them is the plasticity of their brains, and the other a really annoying thing called the affective filter.
Babies & Young Children Have More Plastic Brains
Brain plasticity, simply put, is the mind’s ability to lose, form and strengthen connections. It is a critical function to learning multiple languages. Younger children have high brain plasticity because they are still developing, which is why it is so much easier for them to learn languages than for adults with more fully formed brains (although multilingual adults tend to maintain a higher level of brain plasticity than their monolingual counterparts).
Neuroscientist Audrey van der Meer, professor at Norwegeian University of Science and Technology, found the neurons within a young child’s brain sharply increases both in number and specialization as (s)he learns new skills and becomes more mobile. The neurons form up to a thousand new connections PER SECOND. Wow.
But here’s the catch — brain plasticity is always changing and brain synapses that are not used are lost as the child grows. According to van der Meer, babies can distinguish sounds between any language in the world when they are four months old; however, when they reach 8 months, this ability is gone. So a Chinese baby can hear the difference between R and L sounds, but as they do not need these sounds to speak their native tongue, this ability drops as they grow.
She also stresses the importance of interaction with real people using a secondary language, rather than a screen. So those Turkish cartoons are OK as a supplement, but they’re not going to help with my son’s language acquisition in a meaningful way. The same for your child and his/her second language. This lends greater support to why immersion works so well, as your child (or you are) being exposed to A LOT more people speaking the second language.
That Stinkin’ Affective Filter
The affective filter is a hypotheses dreamed up by noted linguist Stephen Krashen. This hypothesis accounts for non-linguistic factors that can affect second language acquisition, such as motivation, self-confidence and anxiety. Adults have notably more stress and embarrassment from not being able to communicate effectively when trying to communicate in a second language. In order to not appear foolish, many of us are too shy to try and speak in a language that we are learning — particularly trying to communicate with native speakers of that language. Older children can also have similar anxiety.
But Krashen believed that children do not have an affective filter that inhibits their learning as grown-ups do. This hypothesis has been critiqued by other linguists for multiple reasons, but I have certainly seen the overall premise of this idea play out in my life. After six years of (slowly) learning Turkish, I am just starting to put myself out there and try to communicate with those around me without being embarrassed by all of my mistakes. A lot of the time, I’m still quite embarrassed! And if I feel too much in the spotlight with multiple people listening to me, I simply will not speak. Even if I know how to answer properly. This pressure is even worse with Korean, as being half-Korean raises expectations that I know more than I actually do.
My son was similar if he feels like people are trying to test his Turkish, or if he doesn’t feel comfortable with that person. But in a group of his peers, or when surrounded by familiar family members, he would repeat phrases and test out new words without any apprehension, and without breaking into his native English at all.
Keep It Up, Parents
So as my boy turns four next week, he’s made another huge leap in his second language acquisition and has our hopes raised once again. Now that we’ve been back in the U.S. for about a month, it is apparent that his acquisition is slowing. I should also note that his pronunciation is not nearly as sharp as his Turkish peers. However, he is still much more advanced than he was a few months ago. We’ll take it!
Our little girl, who just turned one even said her first Turkish word, “gel” or “come.” The key is persistence, consistent exposure from REAL people, and immersive sessions whenever possible. For other parents with bilingual children, keep the faith! Every home is different, every child moves at a different speed, but these factors will help overcome those hurdles.
Just remember that your kids will have less anxiety learning a new language than you do, and life may get busy but you have to keep those synapses firing! 😉