The child’s linguistic appetite must be stimulated from an early age, experts say, highlighting that the benefits the bilingual child reaps extend beyond the linguistic sphere.
“You are never too old to learn a new language” is the title under which psycholinguistics professor François Grosjean published an interview with the former publisher Ann Patty, who started learning Latin at the age of 60. The author of a book in which she writes about this experience, Patty started teaching Latin after studying it for six years. She says she still needs 4-5 years to reach the desired level in a language she doesn’t consider dead, but a “zombie,” whose terse expressions one meets everywhere, from the works of great writers to cartoons.
If we are never too old to dive into the deep waters of an unknown language, are there any ages considered too young for us to be exposed to a second language? This is a question that not only parents but also specialists have asked over time. “The sooner, the better,” seems to be the answer that several studies outline.
The bilingual child: what is the best window of opportunity for learning a language?
A few decades ago, the specialists themselves were reluctant when it came to the idea of learning a new language before consolidating one’s mother tongue, considering that exposing the child to both languages can lead to semilingualism—the situation in which the child does not develop skills in either language—linguistic consultant Ilana Shydlo says.
Although researchers still debate today about the ideal period to learn a foreign language, there is a consensus that young ages are the most suitable for this acquisition, professor Jane Kang says. She emphasises that a second language does not have a negative impact on the child’s mother tongue, as long as both languages are learned at the same pace.
Babies are born with the ability to distinguish sounds from any language in the world, researchers discovered in the 1980s, after presenting a set of English and Hindi sounds to 7-month-old babies.
While the babies were able to discern sounds from both worlds, the adults failed to notice the difference between some sounds of the language they did not know.
The younger a child is, the more correct their pronunciation will be. This is according to a study showing that, if a child starts speaking a second language before the age of six (through the classic teaching-learning method), they will speak it without an accent but they will have a slight accent if the learning takes place between the ages of 7 and 11, and after the age of 12 they will almost always speak the new language with an accent.
Other researchers have concluded that learning English between the ages of 8 to 10 does not allow the child to reach a level of language knowledge similar to that of monolinguals, concluding that the optimal learning period is between the ages of 0 and 7.
A study published in 2018 shows that the ability to learn a foreign language to the point where we master it like a native speaker disappears somewhat later than previously thought. In order to estimate, as accurately as possible, the endpoint of the critical period in which a high level of fluency is reached, researchers conducted a survey which involved more than 600,000 subjects, who were given an online grammar test. In the end, the authors of the study concluded that the best period for acquiring a foreign language ends at the age of 18, after which the ability to learn suffers a steep decline, but also that, for fluent communication, learning should take place before the age of 10.
Attempts to replicate this study have had less clear results, say linguists David Birdsong and Jan Vanhove, noting that other researchers have found that the window of opportunity in which a new language is easily learned closes more quickly. Other studies have not identified a clear threshold from which language acquisition becomes more difficult. What is certain is that, overall, there is a decline in the assimilation capacity over time. This obvious decline is visible in any field as we grow older.
The acquisition of a foreign language depends on several factors, including motivation, the two linguists say. While some (especially children and young people) are motivated to quickly integrate into the new culture using language as a vector for their desire, others oscillate between the old culture and the new, interacting less with those outside their social circle and aiming for the minimum vocabulary that can help them manage in the new context.
The method by which we acquire a second language is important, its impact being sometimes even greater than age, researcher Joshua Hartshorne says. He explains that if he had to choose between starting to learn at a young age or learning via immersion in an environment where that language is spoken more than 90% of the time, he would choose the second option without hesitation.
The advantages and disadvantages of the bilingual child
Studies have shown that seven-month-old babies who were raised in a bilingual environment have better cognitive control even before the onset of speech compared to those in a monolingual environment.
Children who had 5-10 years of bilingual exposure achieved better cognitive performance on tests, with researchers detecting greater activity in the regions of the prefrontal cortex involved in processes such as decision-making, focusing on demanding tasks, ignoring distractions, or responding to feedback.
The bilingual child’s brain is actively involved in evaluating the two competing language systems, selecting the language in use and focusing on it, while intentionally inhibiting the competing language system, deciphering the meaning of words or selecting the grammatical pattern specific to the language on which they are focusing, thus performing massive work, researcher Ellen Bialystok says.
The most significant difference between bilinguals and monolinguals is the ability of the former to monitor the environment in which they live. Since bilinguals have to switch frequently from one language to another, this mental gymnastics extends beyond the linguistic perimeter, helping them maintain focus on other types of tasks as well, researcher Albert Costa says. Studies have shown that bilingual individuals achieve better results in monitoring tasks, while the activity in the cortical regions involved in monitoring remains low, proof of the efficiency with which they solve these tasks.
The beneficial effects of bilingualism also extend into adulthood and old age. A study coordinated by researcher Tamar Gollan on a group of Spanish- and English-speaking elderly showed that they are more protected from Alzheimer’s disease than monolinguals. Other studies by Canadian researchers have shown that bilingualism can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in subjects who have spent most of their lives using two or more languages consistently, reporting the onset of the first symptoms 4-5 years later than monolinguals.
Speaking about the disadvantages of bilingualism, Bialystok says that they are minor and relate to the size of the vocabulary, which is, on average, somewhat smaller than that of monolinguals. Also, the time needed to find a specific word during a conversation can be longer, but we are talking about a difference of milliseconds compared to monolinguals.
Although bilingualism is not the solution to developing all cognitive or language skills, the benefits it brings are consistent and go beyond linguistics—it contributes to brain development, opens doors to travel, study, or work abroad, and to direct access to information.
Bilingual education also brings economic benefits. A Canadian government report shows that bilinguals earn, on average, 37% more than their monolingual peers and that, even without a university degree, learning a new language comes with a salary increase. Also, those who speak two languages enjoy more employment opportunities and are fired less frequently than monolinguals during difficult economic times.
Often, people try to discover what the most important advantage of learning a foreign language is, psycholinguist Danijela Trenkic says. She emphasises that the greatest gift bilingualism offers us is not financial, nor even related to the development of intelligence or the gain in terms of health, but that of communication with people from whom the language barrier would otherwise separate us.
“The lack of a word can be the lack of a life dimension,” Romanian philosopher Constantin Noica said. Not learning another language can mean missing opportunities to get to know people who could have placed before us, even for a short time, the lens of experiences and information that would show us fragments of the world beyond the dimensions and colours we see through the narrow filter of our experience.
Carmen Lăiu is an editor of Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network magazines.