The American author William Alexander described in an article he published in 2014 a frustrating process he went through that for about a year he tried to learn the French language. He writes that his mind rejected any learning strategy he tried. And when he thought he already understood something in French he tried to talk to a three-year-old boy and found that he could not even have a basic conversation with him.
The language paradox states that the claim “all languages are easy to learn” is true because almost every child is able to learn languages easily and naturally, yet when he/she grows up, the statement seems false since all the other languages are somehow all extremely difficult to learn…
The fact that a small infant can acquire language quickly just by observing, while an adult needs tools that do not really seem to help, is no less amazing. There is no existing technology in the world that comes close to the learning ability of a normal two-year-old learning a language.
A baby can quickly and naturally acquire complex grammar, syntax, and semantics. Language is a group of words conveyed in speech, writing, and signing that blend together to convey meaning. The thousands of languages that exist today all share three things in common—syllables (short and distinct sounds), words (the smallest unit for conveying meaning), grammar (a set of rules that enable people to understand each other).
Humans start talking at a very early age. The English word “infant” comes from the Latin word “infans”, which means “not speaking”. But within a few short months the baby begins to recognize the structure of the language, understand the connection between mouth movements and meaningful sounds. And then the infant soon begins to develop a concept of language that allows the recognition of what is being said to or about them. Then, a more productive language develops that creates and incorporates words. At just 4 months of age the baby spontaneously begins to make sounds and speaks in a meaningless language that is not linked to a specific familiar language. There is no connection between the sounds to which the baby is exposed and those he/she produces at this period of his/her life. Similarly, however, deaf children who see their parents using sign language will sign meaningless signs using their hands. At about 10 months of age, the sounds produced already have meanings. At that time, the baby gradually loses the ability to recognize and produce sounds that are not used in his/her mother tongue. At the age of about a year and a half, the child is already learning words at a rate of about one word per day, and later at the age of two years and older, the child moves from the single word stage to using word combinations. An abbreviated “telegram-like” expression is created, such as “go cat”. And within a very short time later the child starts using sentences, arguing and making demands.
The question of how language is acquired so quickly has intrigued many linguists. B.F. Skinner believed that the combination of linking sounds to events repetitively creates a learning process. Chomsky, on the other hand, believed that conditioning alone was not enough, and humans were born with a built-in ability to acquire language consisting of nouns, verbs, and adjectives common to all languages, even though infants have no understanding of the components and rules of the language. In his opinion, humans have the genetic predisposition to learn grammar rules. According to Chomsky, humans are not a “clear slate” in the linguistic context and are programmed for that from birth. Today’s common belief is that there are probably innate elements that allow language learning, but the conditioning and interaction is also necessary.
How is it that babies are so talented at learning languages while adults have such a hard time with that? It turns out that the ability to learn a language in children up to the age of seven is indeed amazing and from then on it deteriorates.
The baby’s brain is sensitive and open to every sound, and when exposed to it again and again the baby learns to associate meanings to that sound. This recognition and learning ability is possible also when hearing fractions of similar sounds, or distorted sounds from a distance. When there is a familiar context, it strengthens the link between the sound and the meaning. Unfamiliar sounds (such as the sounds of the Chinese language for English-speaking babies) are interpreted as noise and repressed by the brain as meaningless noise. Thus, the brain gradually loses the ability to recognize those sounds, and in old age a lot of effort will be needed just to notice the nuances between unfamiliar sounds. This is one fundamental problem, a kind of deafness to the sounds of unfamiliar languages.
This can be compared to hearing familiar lyrics in a faint voice from a distance. Although the words are barely recognizable, the brain completes the familiar words and enables us to “hear” even nuances and understand the lyrics in that familiar context. Whereas while we try to listen from a distance to unfamiliar words it is very difficult to interpret and understand what is going on.
Just a few months of early childhood exposure to the sounds of a new language are enough to develop a listening ability. A baby whose mother tongue is English and is exposed to the sounds of the Chinese language at an early age will develop the ability to recognize those sounds while it will probably “sound like Greek” to others, as noise that should be filtered.
The second problem with learning a second language is that a first language already exists. When an adult learns a new word in a foreign language, he/she usually tries to link the memory to a word in the mother tongue. The memory creation is not directly linking the new sounds of the new language and the event itself (as it happens with babies), rather the link and learning is created by translating and searching for similarities and associations to the familiar language.
As people develop memory skills, they always talk about associations that help them remember. For example, when trying to remember a long list of digits it is recommend to associate the digits with colors or other imaginary geometric images. This memorization method seems quite similar to the learning of the baby that associates sounds to events that are likely to produce a stronger memory.
Most adults are not skilled in memory techniques linking sounds or signs to imaginary events and therefore the new language memory is not strong enough, and fades over time.
Another difference between language acquisition in adults and children is the intensity of language exposure. While in children the exposure to the sounds of language is constant and intense, with adults learning a second language, the exposure is intermittent and less intense. It takes an effort to create exposure to a foreign language and an even further effort to practice it.
Another element that exists in adults is the embarrassment and the fear of making mistakes when speaking the new language. Embarrassment engages the mind and limits its openness to learn and absorb new information.
The classification that the brain categorizes foreign sounds as noise, the dominant mother tongue that overshadows the foreign language, and perhaps also the difficulty of learning at an older age make learning a foreign language a frustrating challenge.
In bilingual homes of immigrant families, during this Coronavirus epidemic time, infants are less exposed to the local language at an early age and this may affect their ability to acquire local language sounds especially in cases of children with language difficulties who need all the help they can get in acquiring the new language.
In a similar context, there is an interesting study that shows that there has been a setback in the local language in children from bilingual families who are closed in a lengthy Coronavirus lock-down. For example, in the case of immigrant children in the United States who are exposed to English only outside their home, there may be a setback and loss of vocabulary as a result of the loss of exposure to the English language for extended periods.
There is a magic in the openness of children’s minds to learn new things in general and language in particular. This magic seems to fade with age. Just as the charm and cuteness of children fades in adulthood so too does the learning ability of the early years.