Scientific Studies on the Developing of the Bilingual Brain in Kids and Adults
OK let’s get a bit technical so you better understand
the huge and profound implications of what you are doing by either speaking a
foreign language at home (in which case, we’ll call you an expert) or by
bringing your kids to us, the experts in language teaching (that will be us at LangoKids Irvine).
We all have some sort of a place to go whenever
we need to cite specific and special information. If you need a verse for example, you
go to your Bible to find it. Throughout my years of education and pleasure
reading, I’ve come across a few scholarly texts that have become like “my Bible”.
They contain the secrets I hold on to and that make me a better linguist and a
more proficient teacher. On this occasion, I want to open my file up to extract
the great secrets hidden in it and present them to you in a way you can
The first article is called The Bilingual
Brain: Human Evolution and Second Language Acquisition by L. Kirk Hagen from
the University of Houston, TX.
The “mosaic of evolutionary” theory suggests
that language is inherently linked to human evolution and human adaptation. Such
mosaic is a compilation of the processes that happen while in the period of
language acquisition or language learning. Let’s understand these phenomena:
1. Language acquisition is the process by which
“children universally acquire a highly abstract, computational complex set of
linguistic rules rapidly and effortlessly. As a sideline, when Rosetta Stone
advertises that you as an adult can “acquire” a language using their program,
it’s a fallacy. You can learn it, but not acquire it. Language acquisition can
only be possible in kids within what is known as the critical period (CP), or
between birth and 8 years old or so. It’s a completely unconscious and natural
process, where grammar study becomes irrelevant. It’s exactly what you
experienced when you started using your native language. You started naming
things and saying sentences without thinking about it much or caring about forming syntactically correct sentences. If a language is acquired, in most
cases, the pronunciation is going to be perfect and nobody will ever question
your accent simply because you won’t have one.
2. Contrarily, language learning is linked to
the process adults go through. It’s a process rather “slow, laborious, and highly
variable”. Results of this process turn into some or high fluency (given certain
conditions) but complete fluency and native-like accent is virtually
impossible. Yes, bilingualism and language learning are possible but not the
full mastering of a language and all cultural inferences.
Now, is it true that the ability to acquire a language
is biologically linked to age? If so what’s the “magic” age? Let’s pin the
first question for a moment and go for the second question. Different authors claimed
different ages for the termination of the CP. Krashen: 5 years of age, Pinker:
6 years of age, Lenneberg: 12 years, Johnon and Newport: 15 years. Lenneberg’s
CP is the one that has carried more weight and seems the most relevant and
complete to this day. Under it, “as one approaches adolescence, the acquisition
of native like fluency becomes increasingly problematic”. Language acquisition has
been associated to the perisylvan region of the left hemisphere in the brain.
He researched the possibility of kids not having a significant impairment in
life if they suffered a left hemisphere brain injury. Their recovering rates
were astonishing (childhood aphasia recovering rates between 75% and 100%). In
contrast, adults with the same conditions a prognosis of full recovery is not
attainable. Considering this and other studies conducted, acquisition
differences are not simply the consequence of inadequate learning experiences,
but rather a result of the fundamental changes in cognitive abilities
associated with our biological makeup and age. What’s more interesting is what
happens in the foreign language arena. Studies of immigrants to the United
States show that “the variable age at arrival was a strong predictor of degree of
accent; length of stay in the USA was not. (Whaaaat?, I have no hope. I will
always sound like a Colombian speaking English…think Sophia Vergara except I am
no Sophia Vergara).
In more serious terms, the paper also points out something
highly fascinating to me and it's something that became a sudden realization for me. Language acquisition and language learning take time and effort. Throughout history (allow me to
touch on the anthropology and sociology fields) we have learned that “It requires less effort to
conquer your enemy than it does to learn to communicate with him”. Hence the
importance of cooperation and multiculturalism, that although not easy,
completely worth it for the advancement of the world. So, congratulations on passing your mother tongue to your children or for relying on us for such a task. You are not only giving your child a linguistic ability, but you are also expanding your children's visions and therefore, changing the world!