Why is it that children learn a second language more readily than adults?

Freddie Bowles, assistant professor of foreign language education in the department of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education and Health Professions, replies:

People who have bilingual children marvel at their ability to pick up a second language so readily and seemingly without effort. This observation perpetuates the general supposition that children learn another language more easily than adults, but linguists caution us to take this bit of folk wisdom with at least one grain of salt.

In 1967, Eric Lenneberg proposed the Critical Period Hypothesis, a suggestion that the brain’s plasticity lends itself to language learning until puberty.  The popularity of this hypothesis has some limited validity. Most researchers agree that there is a ‘sensitive’ period for language learning before puberty, but the successful acquisition depends on the linguistic function.

Then why do children learn a second language so readily?  First of all, they are unafraid to use the language.  They enjoy mimicking the sounds, patterns and rhythms of a new language.  They are naturally attuned to the phonological system of a language.

Another reason is contextual.  Children interact with the language through social contacts in school, on the playground and after school.  They are immersed in a language-rich environment. This informal use of the language is readily acquired within one to two years of exposure, so adults perceive children to be fluent speakers of the new language.  However, we should be cautioned that the language of school, academic language, is not so readily acquired.  It takes between five to seven years to acquire this special form of language, so although a child may be a fluent speaker and listener of everyday social language, they aren’t so readily prepared to tackle the more demanding language of the classroom

About The Author

University Relations Science and Research Team

University Relations Science and Research Team

Matt McGowan
science and research writer
479-575-4246, dmcgowa@uark.edu

Robert Whitby
science and research writer
479-387-0720, whitby@uark.edu

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