Last year, in October, I remember logging onto Facebook and seeing dozens of posts about Mark Zuckerberg speaking Mandarin, seemingly out of nowhere.
Even though this seemed like a sudden development, he acquired his language skills through hard work and discipline. I remember seeing him on “Oprah” several years ago, revealing that he took Chinese lessons before work every day, even though he was regularly putting in 16 hours at the office.
I want to parallel his story with the story of my friend, Jenny, who isn’t a tech or business genius, but is really good at picking up Mandarin. Jenny is originally from China, but was adopted by a lovely couple from Arizona when she was about 10 months old. She grew up in the United States, and the only Mandarin she encountered was during those first 10 months of her life.
When she was in her mid-twenties, Jenny decided she wanted to learn her native language, and today she sounds like a native speaker. As a scientist, I wondered how she was able to do it so quickly, and why it took Mark a lot longer. Was the difference innate? No, I realized. This difference had nothing to do with genes; instead it has to do with differences in their early childhood experiences.
How early is early childhood?
The early years of brain development are of critical importance. Parents who want the best early academic experience (and later academic successes) for their children must focus on the role that early childhood education plays in a person’s development.
For understandable reasons, parents sometimes view early childhood education as preparation for kindergarten and for learning skills like reading, writing, and math. But the most critical phases of early childhood education actually begin at birth. By age three, about 85 percent of the wiring in children’s brains has already been formed.
Thanks to an abundance of media attention that early childhood education gets, many parents do indeed understand that this time period is critical for a child’s brain development. But a lot of us just don’t know what to do in the first three years. I want to discuss the potentially significant neurological benefits of exposing children, starting at the earliest ages, to multiple languages.
When should a child start learning a foreign language?
Every child is born with the ability to learn any language, and it is true that young children can learn multiple languages at the same time with remarkable ease. But how do children do it? What happens that allows them to absorb these strange sounds, and what kind of impact does it have on their life?
First, it’s important to remember that each language has its own set of sounds, and that there are certain sounds that may be present in one language and not present in another. For instance, there are not two distinct sounds for “r” and “l” in Japanese, as this linguist explains in a TED talk. Instead, there is one letter that combines both sounds. This is why monolingual Japanese speakers have difficulty distinguishing these sounds in other languages like English.
There is a comparatively brief window of time at which infants, no matter their background or the language their parents speak, can differentiate the sounds of all languages. After 10–12 months, children lose this ability and can only perceive and differentiate the sounds that they were exposed to before that time.
Can this decline in the ability of children to hear “foreign sounds” be reversed? Yes, however, research tells us convincingly that there is a critical time window for implementing the process of reversal. After roughly the age of four, the loss is permanent.
What impact does exposing your child to another language have?
Exposure to multiple language sounds at an early age is critical if parents want their child to learn another language later in life. Additionally, exposing children to several languages when they are in this critical period can help sustain the brain’s capacity for malleability.
The benefits of learning multiple languages at a very early age are no longer a matter of conjecture. Scientists have observed differences in the brains of people who learned a foreign language early as opposed to late in life. Those who learned multiple languages in early childhood listen to and process all of these languages in the same region of the brain. Meanwhile, people who learned a language after this critical period process new languages in a smaller region far away from where one’s native language is processed.
This research confirms that the brain actually restructures itself not only while learning or speaking a language, but from the simple act of being exposed to it.
The differences that brain imaging shows us don’t end there. Recently, scientists have studied language retention in Chinese people who had been adopted by French families when they were 12 months old — before they knew how to speak Chinese. After adoption, these children had no additional exposure to their native tongue.
Researchers exposed the adopted children and a group of French-born children to a set of Chinese tones. Despite not being able to speak Chinese, the adopted children processed the tones on the left side of the brain, where language is processed. On the other hand, the French–born children who had never been exposed to Chinese processed the tones on the right side of their brain, in the area that people use process music.
What can monolingual parents do?
Previously, Yonah Korngold suggested five ways to incorporate foreign languages into your preschooler’s life. His suggestions included having your child spend time with a native speaker and finding extracurricular activities in a foreign language.
Something else monolingual parents can consider is exposing their kids to media in a foreign language. Use songs or shows in another language, but be sure to turn these into interactive experiences for your children! As Noam Chomsky explained to me, language immersion needs to be grounded in motivation — the words you expose your child to should be connected to her actions.
For example, try having a friend who speaks a foreign language record vocabulary words on your phone and title the files with the English names of household objects. Then you can have your child point at different things around your home and play the word that matches whatever she is drawn to. Another way you can do this is by looking up the translation of childhood songs in foreign languages and playing them in related environments (a song about going to sleep as your child gets ready for bed, for one).
My own company, Kadho, develops mobile apps that expose babies and toddlers to the building blocks of languages in an interactive manner, one that adapts to a child's learning pace. When children this young hear these sounds repetitively, they prepare a child’s brain to learn native and foreign languages.
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Kim, Karl HS, et al. "Distinct cortical areas associated with native and second languages." Nature 388.6638 (1997): 171-174.
Pallier, C., Bosch, L., & Sebastián-Gallés, N. (1997). A limit on behavioral plasticity in speech perception. Cognition, 64(3), B9-B17.
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