Many researchers believe that learning foreign language before puberty allows children to speak more fluently, almost like native speakers . In addition, learning more than one language at an early age improves communication skills throughout life and contributes to cognitive development and cultural awareness.
Many studies suggest that the best time to introduce a foreign language is before the age of 10 . At this early stage in life, language is learned and acquired more quickly, better retained and spoken with exceptional pronunciation. It is widely accepted that the younger the students, the more successful they are imitating new sounds. This is because our brain is more open to new sounds (words) before adolescence. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult for older students to speak a new language without having a “foreign” accent.
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While some findings have indicated that a child up to 5 years of age can process up to five languages, experts agree that a bilingual approach is best for young children. Studies have shown that bilingual children can discriminate and separate their two languages even before they speak their first word. In addition, they are beginning to build sound representations for both languages during the first year of life. Some experts believe that babies are born with the ability to distinguish the speech and sound contrasts of all the languages of the worlds, while the experience of hearing one language (in contrast to another) helps to maintain the distinctions between them.
Some scientists believe that children learn the language differently, but it is not easier than adults. As they point out, children acquire a language using the same parts of the brain as the parts that control unconscious actions. That is why it often seems that children take words and phrases without much effort. On the other hand, adults are more capable of complex and intellectual learning. Other researchers believe that our brain is configured to acquire language naturally during childhood and early adolescence. In addition to the possible predispositions in the brain, children seem to be more motivated to learn languages compared to adults: they devote much more time to learning new words and phrases.
Even early research has suggested that language is learned differently before and after puberty begins. In the late 1960s, a scientist proposed that language can only be acquired during the critical period, defined as the period between birth and puberty. At this stage of life, maturational and experiential forces direct the left brain hemisphere towards gradual specialization for language. This process is supposed to be completed before puberty, regardless of how complete the language acquisition is. This means that, after puberty, language is not learned through specialized neural systems for language learning, but through mechanisms intended for general learning.
Based on these findings, the scientists raised the question: “Will this critical period for language learning extend to the acquisition of a second language as well?” A group of researchers tested the English proficiency acquired by native Chinese and Korean speakers aged 3 to 39 when they arrived in the United States and those who had lived in the USA between 3 and 26 years before the test. The test was based on investigating the efficiency of the use of various structures of English grammar. The results revealed a clear advantage for those who arrived earlier. That is, until puberty, the test performance was linearly correlated with the age of arrival, while, after puberty, the performance was not related to the age of arrival and, more importantly, it was quite low. Therefore,
To sum up, children may not be better at learning languages in terms of effort input and devoting time to that goal, but they are certainly better than adults at acquiring the correct grammatical and phonetic structure of a foreign language . Age-related changes in brain structure and plasticity make the task of learning a foreign language more difficult for older people, as their brains process information differently.