Why Johnny can't speak a foreign language

Fascinating new study adds neurological confirmation

An immigrant family moves to the United States, none of its members able to speak English. The father, who is to begin teaching in a distinguished American college as soon as his English is adequate, struggles hard to become fluent, but can’t lose his thick accent. His wife is less successful, despite taking classes in English.

But their 5-year-old son picks up English effortlessly, and without a trace of accent, on the playground, in preschool, from the baby-sitter, everywhere he goes.

He will be comfortably bilingual when he enters first grade and for the rest of his life.

Yet most American school systems still insist on waiting until kids get to high school before trying to teach them a foreign language.

More than three decades ago, the great Canadian neurologist Dr. Wilder Penfield pointed out that “a child’s brain has a specialized capacity for learning languages—a capacity that decreases with the passage of years,” because of changes in the developing brain as it loses its early plasticity.

During the first years of life, a child programs his brain with the phonemes—or basic phonetic sounds—of the language he hears all around him. Then he uses these basic units to form words and sentences and to connect with other nerve cells concerned with motor activity, thinking and other intellectual functions.

If he is casually exposed to a second language, a child learns that too, programming its basic sounds into his developing brain as he does his native tongue. He will be able to speak both languages easily, with the accent he hears around him, and to switch effortlessly from one to another.

But after the age of 10 or 12, said Penfield, a child’s brain can no longer encode new basic language units in the same way.

If he tries to learn a second language as a teen-ager or adult, he must do it with the language programming already in his brain, will have to use a mental translation process and will speak the second language with the accents of his native tongue.

Few educators in the United States paid any attention—either to Penfield’s explanations or to the easily observable fact that small children can learn a second language effortlessly while it is much more difficult for teens and adults.

Most American school systems continue to teach a foreign language primarily in high school, years after the brain has lost its ability to learn a new language easily.

It’s hard going for most students.

And much of what they do learn is soon forgotten once school is over.

Many bilingual programs for students whose native language is not English also ignore research about how the brain learns language. They tend to drag out the transition to English for years, frittering away the time when it’s easiest to learn a second language and failing to use the immersion method (Penfield calls it the “mother’s method”) that is most effective.

Comes a fascinating new study that adds some neurological confirmation to the observations about language learning to which we should have been paying attention.

Using new functional magnetic resonance imaging techniques to map brain activity in healthy, bilingual adults, researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York found important differences based on the age at which the second language was acquired.

The results are published in the current issue of the scientific journal Nature.

The brains of the adults who had learned two languages as very young children stored both languages together in the same area of the brain, researchers found.

Those who acquired a second language in adolescence used a second region of the brain near the first, but separate.

The research suggests that while babies and preschoolers learn the language, or languages, in their environment without apparent effort and their brain encodes them into hardwired neuronal circuits, the process is different when adolescents and adults learn a second language.

They must use a different—and more difficult—process to learn and retain the information.

Learning a second language later in life is fundamentally different than acquiring it early, explained Dr. Joy Hersch, the chief investigator.

The study did not answer the question of when time runs out to encode a second language in the brain’s primary language areas.

But other researchers have suggested that unless an individual learns a second language before adolescence, it is almost impossible to become as fluent as a native speaker.

So why do we usually wait until high school to teach our kids a foreign language?

Even though the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging to map brain activity is cutting-edge science, we have had centuries of experience watching non-English-speaking newcomers to this country learn language. And most of us know, from personal experience, how difficult it is to learn a foreign language in high school or college.

The occasional experiment in trying to introduce a second language in a kindergarten or elementary school has rarely worked. Too often the teacher does not have a mastery of the second language and does not use the direct or “mother’s method” so it turns out to be a waste of time. Coloring books or tapes in a second language usually don’t work either.

But surely American educators must be smart enough to figure out how to teach children a second language easily and effectively—despite all the evidence that they have been doing it wrong for decades.

What are they waiting for?

Joan Beck is a Chicago Tribune columnist.

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