Why It'S So Hard To Learn Another Language After Childhood


Being bilingual benefits children as they learn lớn speak — and adults as they age

By Ramin Skibba 11.29.2018

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Even when you’re fluent in two languages, it can be a challenge to lớn switch back và forth smoothly between them. It’s common lớn mangle a split verb in Spanish, use the wrong preposition in English, or thua kém sight of the connection between the beginning and end of a long German sentence. So — does mastering a second language hone our multitasking skills or merely muddle us up?


This debate has been pitting linguists & psychologists against one another since the 1920s, when many experts thought that bilingual children were fated lớn suffer cognitive impairments later in life. But the science has marched on. In the Annual đánh giá of Linguistics, psycholinguist Mark Antoniou of Western Sydney University in australia outlines how bilingualism — as he defines it, using at least two languages in your daily life — might benefit our brains, especially as we age. He addresses how best to teach languages lớn children & lays out evidence that multiple-language use on a regular basis may help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. This conversation has been edited for length và clarity.

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What are the benefits of bilingualism?

I’m interested in the interaction between language-learning and cognition — the mental processes of the brain. The cognitive benefits of bilingualism can begin from experiences very early in childhood & can persist throughout life.

The first main advantage involves what’s loosely referred lớn as executive function. This describes skills that allow you khổng lồ control, direct and manage your attention, as well as your ability to lớn plan. It also helps you ignore irrelevant information và focus on what’s important. Because a bilingual person has mastery of two languages, and the languages are activated automatically và subconsciously, the person is constantly managing the interference of the languages so that she or he doesn’t say the wrong word in the wrong language at the wrong time.

The brain areas responsible for that are also used when you’re trying lớn complete a task while there are distractions. The task could have nothing to vì with language; it could be trying khổng lồ listen to lớn something in a noisy environment or doing some visual task. The muscle memory developed from using two languages also can apply to lớn different skills.

Where are these benefits expressed in the brain?

Executive functions are the most complex brain functions — the most “human” functions that separate us from apes and other animals. They’re often observed in parts of the brain that are the newest, in evolutionary terms: the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for advanced processing; the bilateral supramarginal gyri, which play a role in linking words và meanings; and the anterior cingulate. Studies show that the bilingual experience alters the structure of these areas.

First of all, we see increases in gray matter volume. The brain is made up of cells called neurons, which each have a cell body and little branching connections called dendrites. Gray matter refers to lớn how many cell bodies & dendrites there are. Bilingual experience makes gray matter denser, so you have more cells. This is an indication of a healthier brain.


Bilingualism also affects trắng matter, a fatty substance that covers axons, which are the main projections coming out from neurons to connect them to lớn other neurons. White matter allows messages to travel fast & efficiently across networks of nerves & to the brain. Bilingualism promotes the integrity of white matter as you age. It gives you more neurons khổng lồ play with, & it strengthens or maintains the connections between them so that communication can happen optimally.

Can teaching children two languages delay or confuse their understanding?

These myths about bilingualism date back to lớn studies in the US and the UK from the First & Second World Wars. They were seriously flawed studies involving children from war-torn countries: refugees, orphans and, in some cases, even children who were in concentration camps. Their schooling had been disrupted for years. They may have suffered traumas, and then they participated in these studies with tests measuring their verbal language abilities.


Unsurprisingly, they scored very poorly on these tests. Did the researchers attribute the poor scores to lớn post-traumatic găng disorder (PTSD)? They probably didn’t even know what that was. No, instead they attributed it to lớn the children’s bilingualism.

It wasn’t until the 1960s, when a really important study was published by Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert at McGill University in Montreal, that views started to lớn shift. Their findings showed that not only vì chưng bilingual children not have a cognitive delay or mental retardation but that their bilingualism actually has some cognitive benefits.

In addition to executive function, bilingual individuals and children show advantages in metalinguistic awareness. This is the ability lớn think about language as abstract units and associations. A good example is the letter H, which is associated with the sound “he” in English, with “n” as in “nickel” in Russian, and with the vowel sound “e” in Greek. There’s nothing special about H that makes it have to lớn have a “he” sound; a bilingual person understands this more readily than a monolingual person does.


What bởi vì the skeptics argue?

The original findings about bilingual advantages to lớn executive function in the 1960s generated a lot of excitement and truyền thông interest. Perhaps the advantages were overstated or misinterpreted. Not every bilingual person is going to have a healthier brain than every monolingual person. We’re talking about general, population-level trends.

We see evidence of bilingual advantages in children, but not always. And as we move into young adults, say, in their 20s, it becomes more difficult to detect these advantages. This makes sense in terms of brain maturation: When you’re a child, your brain is still developing, but when you reach young adulthood, your brain is at its peak, so bilingualism doesn’t give you much extra.

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Learning languages as a child is different than doing so later in life, right?

It depends. For a long time, it was thought that the only way to really learn a language was to bởi vì it early. It was thought that after adolescence, you couldn’t learn a language perfectly. You were always going to be accented. But we now know that that’s not true, because there are many people who learn languages as adults, and they learn them very well. So this has led us to reexamine what it is about learning a language during childhood that makes it different from adulthood.

Is your brain more ready and more flexible — what we hotline more “plastic” — when you’re a child, và then it becomes more rigid and fixed as an adult? Or is it that the conditions of language-learning are different when you’re a child, in terms of the amount and type of đầu vào you receive, how much slack you’re afforded và how much encouragement others give you? An adult who is working two jobs and going khổng lồ language classes at 7 o’clock at night has a different type of acquisition than a child constantly receiving input đầu vào from the mother, grandmother, father or other primary caregiver.

Ultimately, the difference between language-learning in children & adults is probably some combination of the two: plasticity và conditions. There are also individual differences. If you put different people in the same situation, some people will flourish & others will struggle.

Does a bilingual brain age differently than a monolingual one?

We know from studies that starting at the age of about 25, your brain starts to lớn decline, in terms of working memory, efficiency, processing speed, those kinds of things. As you age, these declines become steeper. The argument is that as we get into older age, bilingualism puts the brakes on and makes that decline less steep. Evidence from older adults is the strongest kind supporting a bilingual advantage. (The second strongest comes from children.)

When you look at bilingual individuals who have suffered neurodegeneration, their brains look damaged. From their brain scans, you’d think these people should be more forgetful, or that they shouldn’t be coping as well as they are. But that’s not the case. A bilingual brain can compensate for brain deterioration by using alternative brain networks & connections when original pathways have been destroyed. Researchers gọi this theory “cognitive compensation” & conclude that it occurs because bilingualism promotes the health of both gray & white matter.


Could learning a language later in life keep Alzheimer’s at bay?

That is a working hypothesis. We’re doing studies where we teach a foreign language to lớn people aged 65 & up with the goal of promoting healthy brain function, even at such a late point in life. What we’re testing is: Can we help people in old age by using language-learning? Does that give you some benefit in terms of a “use it or thảm bại it” approach to brain health?

The initial signs are encouraging. Preliminary data look good. It seems that learning a language in later life results in positive cognitive outcomes.

Because language-learning & use is so complex — arguably the most complex behavior we human beings engage in — it involves many levels. You have speech sounds, syllables, words, grammar, sentences, syntax. There’s so much going on; it really is a workout for a wide brain network. Và those areas of the brain overlap with the ones in which aging adult brains show decline or neurological pathological disease. As a result, we argue that learning a second language would be an optimal activity lớn promote healthy aging.

But not enough studies have been done to settle this once và for all. Và we don"t know any of the details. How much language experience is needed? Does it matter which languages you learn? bởi vì you need to achieve a certain màn chơi of proficiency? We don’t have answers lớn these questions.

What advice vày you have for parents raising bilingual children?

My advice would be khổng lồ be encouraging and patient. Bilingual children have a tougher task than those learning only a single language. They’re learning two sets of vocabulary và speech sounds. It can be challenging for those of us living in a country with a dominant language khổng lồ establish a functional purpose for the second language. A child needs to lớn feel that the language is practical và has a use. Grandparents are great for this, and so is living in a community where there are cultural events or schools where children can be immersed in the second language.

Another concern parents bring up is worrying that their child might be mixing the languages. Don’t worry about what we refer lớn as “code mixing.” It’s a perfectly normal part of bilingual development. They’re not confused. It’s thought to lớn be a sign of bilingual proficiency or competence lớn mix up the languages.

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What other research are you doing in this area?

I’m interested in trying lớn understand why sometimes we see a bilingual effect, and other times we don’t. In one article, I proposed that maybe the language pairing matters. If you speak two distant languages, lượt thích Mandarin Chinese và English, would that result in similar types of brain changes as speaking two closely related languages, like German and English?

Maybe if the languages are closely related, they’re competing more and you have a harder job of separating them, to lớn avoid using the wrong word at the wrong time. Maybe if they’re more distant, then you can’t rely on prior knowledge from learning the first one lớn learn the second. In that case, you’re starting from scratch with the second language, & that’s more effortful at the initial learning stages. But once you’ve learned the two languages, perhaps there’s less competition.