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Learning a New Language Differs Between Children and Adults

Brain mechanisms for language acquisition in adults differ in children.

Key points

  • Learning a new language is part of how the brain wires during childhood. Learning a new language as an adult relies on preexisting brain wiring.
  • Our ability to rapidly learn a language is during a critical period in brain development that ends around adulthood.
  • Brain mechanisms for language acquisition differ between children and adults, and so should learning methods.

The songbird is among the classical species studied as a model for understanding the neurobiology of language. It uses song and vocalization to communicate information for its survival. The songbird’s language is genetically wired into its brain and develops early in life. Interestingly, some songbirds appear to sustain the ability to learn new songs throughout their entire lifespan. This process appears paired with their ability to form new neural cells and synapses, even during adulthood.

Like songbirds, humans communicate through vocalization, enabling us to express our ideas and convey information essential for survival. Yet, unlike songbirds, our ability to rapidly learn language appears confined to a critical time window of brain development that ends around adulthood. As anyone who has tried as an adult can tell you, learning a new language later in life is more difficult. Performance measures confirm this observation and show that individuals under the age of 10 can master language(s) faster and more effortlessly than adults, who require more years of instruction to reach comparable proficiency.

Human language, with its varied components from sound to meaning, is learned in milestone stages early in life. By about six, most children achieve similar milestones consistent with the idea that language is genetically wired into the nature of brain development. An important question, however, is: Does language learning involve using a different neural strategy after that time window?

Research suggests that this may be the case and that adults' brain mechanisms for language acquisition differ from children's. This idea has real-world practical implications not just for how adults can learn a new language but for considering how to train language impairments such as those in stroke victims.

 Lizzie Roberts Getty Images
Source: Credit: Lizzie Roberts Getty Images

For adults, learning a new language is about modifying existing brain networks.

Language is a gateway through which children integrate into the outside world. From object labeling to interpersonal communication and self-expression, language acquisition is critical to any child’s development.

Learning a new language for adults, however, appears different. Adults must be able to reform an already developed, word-based cognitive framework into a new language structure to master a new language. From this perspective, the act of learning is drastically different than during childhood. Moreover, learning a new language appears to differ between adults based on background, education, and other personal factors.

Neuroscience research shows that language acquisition by adults involves the activation of brain areas important for language. Yet, the strength of the existing connectivity influences the ability of an adult to learn a new language.

On the other hand, childhood learning is based on the emergence and refinement of language areas within the brain. For example, in childhood, language learning appears to support forming of language networks within the left hemisphere.

Simply put, language is part of how the brain wires during childhood, while language learning uses how the brain is wired in adulthood. Brain imaging studies in adults also reveal that language learning can involve activity in non-language-related brain areas. Maybe this is why personal and cultural immersion often accelerates language learning.

Well Worth the Effort

Studies suggest that individuals who speak more than one language tend to do better in cognitive tests that include memory and recall. Studies indicate that bilinguals have a lowered risk of neurodegenerative disease relative to individuals who speak only one language. Thus, the challenge of learning a new language for adults appears to be an even more worthwhile effort. Not only does it enable insight into new cultures and enrich intellectual and emotional life, but it also appears to benefit brain health.

References

Aamodt Caitlin M., Farias-Virgens Madza and White Stephanie A. 2020. Birdsong as a window into language origins and evolutionary neurosciencePhil. Trans. R. Soc. B3752019006020190060

Cisneros-Franco JM, Voss P, Thomas ME, de Villers-Sidani E. Critical periods of brain development. Handb Clin Neurol. 2020;173:75-88. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-64150-2.00009-5. PMID: 32958196.

Smalle, E.H.M., Panouilleres, M., Szmalec, A. et al. Language learning in the adult brain: disrupting the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex facilitates word-form learning. Sci Rep 7, 13966 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-14547-x

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