Ever notice how kids seem to pick up foreign languages with ease – while adult learners end up banging their head against the wall for weeks just trying to grasp the basics of a foreign tongue? There’s a simple reason behind it: your brain is actually more adept at learning languages at different stages throughout your life.
In fact, babies have some pretty fascinating linguistic superpowers between the ages of 6 and 10 months, like the ability to distinguish accents and pick up different ways of pronouncing the same consonants.
But why do these powers of perception seem to ‘switch off’ as we get older? Because your brain is an efficient machine, and it tends to adapt for the future based on your recent experiences. If you only speak one language for most of your life, the brain functions related to learning new languages start to diminish – just as a physical muscle gets weaker when you don’t exercise it.
So does that mean if you’ve made it into adulthood without learning a second language, you’re doomed to a long an arduous battle to get your head around new grammar forms, or learning to roll your tongue to produce an unfamiliar sound? Not necessarily. In fact, a recent study shows that learning a new language is actually a great way to give your brain a workout. The study tracked intelligent individuals learning a new language on a crash course schedule and compared them to equally intelligent, hard-working university students who were not learning a language. Fascinatingly enough, certain parts of the language learners’ brains actually grew.
So what’s the bottom line? There are definitive advantages to learning multiple languages at a young age, and if you have children they will benefit a great deal by learning a second language while their brain still has a natural advantage. But don’t use age as an excuse to keep you from trying – your golden window may have passed, but doing the hard work to learn a language will cultivate your brain to levels you wouldn’t otherwise get to enjoy.