How do people learn languages? Do some simply have a gift for learning a language as an adult? Or do they just work harder at language acquisition?
Whatever the reasons, approximately 40 percent of the world’s population speak only one language.
In spite of this, many people extol the benefits of learning a new language—to gain a competitive edge in the global marketplace, improve memory, and even learn how to use your mother tongue with more skill.
Before you jump in to begin tackling a new language challenge, let’s explore a bit about how people learn languages, both as children and as adults. What you discover may be surprising.
Language Acquisition—Our Human Instinct
As humans, we are wired to learn and communicate by language. Language acquisition is one of the quintessential human traits, because non-humans do not communicate by using language.
This should come as no surprise to parents who have observed their children mimicking sounds and even the mouth movements of those around them. The desire to communicate through language is one of the strongest human tendencies.
Moreover, studies of the human brain, especially more recent research using MRI imaging, demonstrate how different parts of the brain react to and control sounds and speech.
One study in Sweden actually revealed that students learning a new language experienced growth in their brain that was directly connected to their language studies and comprehension. According to the study, “the regions of the brain that grew were linked to how easy the learners found languages, and their brains developed according to their performance.”
Language Acquisition—Basic Mechanics
Language acquisition as a child shares some similarities with—as well as some differences from—learning a language as an adult. As previously noted, children instinctively begin acquiring language through interaction with other children and adults.
We are surrounded by conversation, and children will naturally begin picking up sounds, words, and sentences from those around them. The process of learning a new language as an adult is very similar.
Stage 1: Learning Sounds
The sounds a language uses are called phonemes. English has about 44. Some languages use more and others, less. Learning to recognize and produce these sounds is called “phonemic awareness.”
Stage 2: Learning Words
The sounds in every language connect together in unique ways to form meanings, most simply expressed in words. Sounds that have meaning are called morphemes.
Stage 3: Learning Sentences
Sounds that form meaning are strung together in coherent strings to form more complex meanings. We call them sentences, and they convey a complete thought.
Language Acquisition—Children and Adults
While children and adults both acquire the basics in the same way, children are able to reach a higher language proficiency sooner than adults because their brains are more flexible to the new rules. Jason Oxenham, CEO of Rocket Languages, says, “Children’s brains have a higher plasticity, meaning that they can better create new neurons and synapses, or connections between information.”
This simply means that adults and children approach the task of learning a new language differently. As several researchers have found, adults tackle the chore of learning a new language with an adult problem-solving process.
Children, by comparison, pay less attention to the rules and simply absorb the new information.
Therefore, adults, due to their problem-solving and study skills, start out learning a new language faster. But children find it easier to pass ahead over time and achieve higher proficiency levels in foreign languages.
So, the playing field is basically equal.
Language Acquisition—Benefits for the Brain
Are you considering learning a new language as an adult? The recognized benefits of learning a new language may just convince you to give it a try.
- Develop a sharper mind. Learning a language involves increasing awareness, and this awareness also transfers to other aspects of your life.
- Grow better at multitasking. People who speak more than one language show more cognitive flexibility and find it easier to adapt to unexpected situations.
- Strengthen your memory. Learning a language gives your memory a fantastic workout and trains your brain to recall information better and more quickly.
- Delay the onset of dementia. Being bilingual or multilingual helps delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia for as long as five years. That’s better than most modern drugs.
- Speed up decision-making. If your mind is accustomed to constantly choosing between several vocabulary options, then making other decisions will come easier, too.
Language Acquisition and Your Business
In today’s global economy, companies must be able to communicate to consumers and employees alike in multiple languages.
While you may find it easy to hire multilingual workers, translating your company documents and communications into various languages in a timely and accurate manner usually requires professional assistance.