It’s common knowledge that learning a language is easier when you’re young, but why is that? Linguist Lynn Nichols dives into the evolution of the human brain as it pertains to language and explains the differences between learning a language as a child versus an adult.

 

Spoiler alert, babies and young children don’t learn languages, they “acquire” them. This is what makes babies the best language learners in the world!

Today’s Guest:

Lynn Nichols is a former professor of linguistics at both Harvard and UC Berkeley–a natural language scientist with expertise in the foundations of human language.

More Resources:

L. Kirk Hagen, The Bilingual Brain: Human Evolution and Second Language Acquisition

Transcription for Episode 3: How Your Baby Learns Language

Amy
Welcome to Growing Up Brainy, your portal into what’s happening inside your baby’s brain. We interview the experts, demystify the science, and help you nurture your child towards a bright, open future.

 

Hi there, I’m your host, Amy Husted, startup addict boy mom of two, and chief commercial officer here at smallTalk. On today’s episode, I have the pleasure of talking with Lynn Nichols, former professor of linguistics at both Harvard and UC Berkeley. Lynn is a natural language scientist with expertise in the foundations of human language. And today we’re going to be talking about the history around bilingualism and how that plays into the idea of introducing more than one language to your child during infancy. But before we dive in, Lynn, I would love it if you told us just a little bit more about your background.

 

Lynn
Sure. My expertise is generally in the area of language in minds. So drilling down to language sciences, it’s in what linguists call lexical meaning, which is what you can think of as word meaning, although it’s a little more nuanced than that. And epistemology, which is the relationship between language and knowledge. And I’ve worked on languages all over the world, from native North America to East Asia to Southeast Asia to Europe.

 

Amy
That’s incredible. I love it. So as some of our audience may already know here at smallTalk, we’re building a product, the smallTalk Egg, that introduces babies to foreign language through play and through their engagement with short little language lessons. And from time to time, we get the question from some parents of why can’t we just let them be babies? Why are we trying to teach them? And that could apply to a lot of things, but when we look specifically at trying to teach our infants in those early months, trying to teach them language, Lynn, I would just love to hear how you might answer that question of why are we trying to teach our tiny little babies language, let alone maybe two or three?

 

Lynn
Well, what most people don’t realize is that babies and infants don’t learn language by being taught language. Our human brains are designed by evolution to learn language. We can’t help it. Just by being exposed to language data, our brains will naturally come out with the result over months, and a few years of having acquired a language so there is no teaching involved. It’s automatically what our brains want to do.

 

Amy
So that makes total sense to me, especially during those early months, I don’t need to sit down and teach my baby the language that we’re already speaking our home. But how might this relate to bilingualism? So if they’re not already being exposed to any other languages, how might that play into them learning a second language?

 

Lynn
Well, actually, just like early language learning is natural, bilingualism is actually natural. If a baby is going to be bilingual, then the time to do it is actually early. If you look at the evolution of the human brain, there’s some clues that our brains were designed to learn language early. So, for example, up until recently, the average human lifespan was about thirty five years. We have evidence from archeology and other types of evidence that there was a lot of isolation between early human groups. Maybe the group size was about 150 people and that there was little language contact between groups. We also know, looking at humans, that there was an evolutionary change where the brain grew much bigger, but in order for the baby to be born through the birth canal, if the brain was fully developed at birth, the baby would not be able to be born. So what happens with the human brain is that a lot of brain growth actually happens after the baby is born in order for the baby to make it to the birth canal.

 

And it’s right after that birth, that infancy and sort of toddlerhood, where there is this enormous brain growth. That’s when language learning happens. And there are some really interesting brain studies that show that when you look at the brains of bilingual children who have learned two languages quite early, those languages are situated in the same part of the brain. When you look at adults who are bilingual, where they learn the second language later in life, those language information is stored in different parts of the brain. So essentially what this is telling us that our brains were designed to learn language early and in addition, our brains were designed to learn languages early, one, two or even three. They’re all put in that same part of the language learning brain together.

 

Amy
So this is also so fascinating to me. What I’m hearing is that being bilingual and especially at an early age and hearing those languages is actually quite natural. It’s not something out of the norm. And so hearing that it’s natural, but knowing that there’s some hesitancy out there with, you know, is it going to confuse my baby or be overwhelming? What do you have to say in that? Like, would you find this to potentially be confusing to babies?

 

Lynn
Not at all. And the important thing to understand about human language is that we have a special genetic or biological endowment to learn language. Now, linguists disagree on what that endowment actually is and how much we are sort of born knowing about language. But I think all linguists agree that language is not learned behaviorally by imitating that we really are born biologically with knowing how to learn language. So when you look at kids learning more than one language in infancy, basically you have this brain predisposition to learn language. And in addition, the brain is like a super pattern recognizer. Let’s just take the sound patterns. The sound patterns in English are very coherent, but they’re very different patterns. And they, the sound patterns in French or the sound patterns in German, which are still different again. And the human brain will recognize those patterns. And those coherences, so when the infant brain is hearing English, it will know that those patterns go together and will store them in a certain way together and process them in a certain way together.

 

It will also recognize that those French patterns also contain a certain coherence. And so it won’t mix them up with the English patterns because mixing French and English patterns doesn’t produce a pattern. So the English patterns will coalesce into an English sound pattern and the French patterns that the brain recognizes will coalesce into a French pattern. I guess that’s the best way to put it. And so the brain is so good at recognizing these patterns that if introduced early on, it will have no trouble in distinguishing which sounds go with which language they’re learning, which grammar patterns go with which language they’re learning, and even which words go with which language that they’re learning.

 

Amy
That is so cool.

 

Lynn
The difference is scientists believe that that ability changes as we grow, that there’s some ability that children have to do that sort of pattern recognition early on and then we lose that pattern recognition ability. Some call it a procedural learning. It freezes or at maturation, it’s no longer able to do that job when we’re adults. And so that’s why adults, they don’t have access to that ability and they have much more difficulty learning a second language.

 

Amy
Yeah, and I. And see, that’s true as an adult myself, even when I was in high school and learning French, I never felt like I would speak in a way. I always felt as though I was translating it in my head before I said it, rather than simply speaking it straightforward and fluently. Does that relate to what you’re saying here?

 

Lynn
Absolutely. So some believe that when adults learn a second language, they’re using their knowledge systems, the kind of knowledge system you would use to learn about historical events or learn cultural practices or learn any facts around the world. But that’s not the way language learning works in a child. As we said, there’s this biological endowment that we don’t quite understand yet, but that’s what we’re able to tap into as a child that you weren’t able to tap into as a high school student, your brain had essentially switched over to the knowledge learning. But that’s not with the way languages are learned.

 

Amy
So cool. I love it. Well, we are going to take a quick minute and we will be right back.

 

The Growing Up Brainy podcast is brought to you by smallTalk. smallTalk allows your baby to engage with foreign language through play. This interactive language exposure during infancy results in what we like to call brain magic, wiring your little one’s brain with the building blocks of a new language and getting them a different and better brain for a lifetime. Look for our first product, the smallTalk Egg launching this fall of 2021.

 

So what we’ve talked about so far has a lot to do with the history of bilingualism and where we’ve gotten to this date. But Lynn, what are you seeing in our culture today? Are you seeing bilingualism becoming more or less relevant or would you say it’s about the same right now?

 

Lynn
It’s a really interesting topic. So our brains evolved in the history of human sapiens to learn language early on. And that worked when we didn’t humans didn’t live very long, there was a lot of isolation, you usually just needed to learn the language of your group. But that societal scenario is very different from modern society. So in modern society, we have a lot of population movement. We have much more language contact in all parts of the world, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia, in Europe.

 

But our brains weren’t designed to learn language at an older age. So right now, with all this contact between speakers of different languages, being natively bilingual is an advantage in today’s society. But we have this brain that can only learn language early. So, you know, it’s like we have this need, this functional need, to be bilingual, but our human neurology hasn’t caught up yet to serve that need.

 

Amy
So now that we know it’s actually quite natural for infants and young children to learn language, whether that’s one or whether that’s multiple, that’s when language learning is happening the most and that it becomes more difficult as an adult, as my high school experience proved. Why is that? Are there reasons beyond it just being a scientific fact? Why do you think that happens?

 

Lynn
It’s interesting. There are a few myths out there about why children learn language easily. And this actually speaks to a controversy in the 20th century about how it is that children actually learn language. There was a large school of thought put out by B.F. Skinner. That language is a behavioral learning, that it’s learned through imitation from others. And there was another school of thought that actually, no, it’s part of our sort of biological endowment. So, for example, on the behavioral side, some have argued that, well, the reason why children learn language easily is because they’re less inhibited than adults.

 

So, for example, maybe high school students are more introverted. They don’t want to speak up in the classroom. They’re more embarrassed. That is actually dispelled very easily because there are just as many introverted kids as there are introverted adults. But introverted kids have no problem learning a language early. And even children with cognitive impairments, certain kinds of cognitive impairments still are able to learn language easily and early. Some have argued that children may be more motivated to learn language than adults. Adults see it as a grind, but for kids it’s more fun. They can talk to their siblings, they can talk to their parents, and their friends. But no, there is no greater motivation for kids than there is for adults. Kids just do it without actually being motivated to do it. Some have argued that, you know, children are able to learn a second language or a third language more easily than adults because the adults have some kind of emotional attachment to their native language that they’re unwilling to let go fully and learning a second language. But actually, there are many adults who have left quite horrible situations in their native lands for a better life elsewhere, but they still have an accent. If they’ve learned the new language late enough, they will still have an accent and not be able to completely learn the grammar patterns of their new language. So it’s clearly not just about conscious motivations and desires and behaviors. It really is all about brain.

 

Amy
So, Lynn, you touched on the idea of accents a little bit in that last question. So I would love could you dig in a little bit more to that and how accents work when you know multiple languages?

 

Lynn
Sure. So, for example, there have been a number of studies over the years of foreign accents among immigrant populations in various parts of the world. And it’s interesting that having an accent is tied to the age of immigration, not how long you’ve been there. So a child that arrives in a new home early on but hasn’t been there very long is far less likely to have an accent in learning the language of their new location than an adult who’s arrived in that location has actually been there for quite a while. So having an accent is tied to early age, not the length of the stay.

 

Amy
OK, so then how does that play into a child that grows up in a bilingual home from day one? Is that child capable of learning both languages to a fluent level and being accent free for both of them? Or will one language always influence the other?

 

Lynn
That’s a great question, because the human brain is designed to acquire language very easily at an early age when the brain is presented with language data, the brain with its genetic endowment that’s predisposed to learn language and its superpower abilities to recognize patterns of language, that child will be able to learn the pronunciation of both of the languages that the child is exposed to an early age and will have a native accent in both languages.

 

Amy
So, Lynn, I think we are all learning so much here today. I’m learning from you and our audience is learning from you. It’s wonderful. And I want to take it back a little bit to an application point of view. So for the parents listening that have these tiny little babies at home and are considering entering them into a bilingual environment, a concern that we sometimes hear is that being bilingual might confuse a child and make them slower to speak their native language. So is there truth to that? Is the first part of the question. And then the second part is if there is truth to that, like or if there’s not, is there any reason a parent should be concerned about the delays that may or may not come from being bilingual?

 

Lynn
No, there’s no reason to be concerned. All children acquire vocabulary at about the same rate through infancy and toddlerhood. So when words first start to appear in the sense that the child is pronouncing words, for example, when the child first starts to pronounce words and say one or two words, the child actually already has the ability to understand probably close to 100 vocabulary words. So children are all acquiring vocabulary at about the same rate. The difference is, let’s say, in a monolingual household where the child will learn their first 100 vocabulary items. In a bilingual household, those vocabulary items will roughly be distributed evenly between the two languages. So say in a French English bilingual household, out of those hundred words that the child has learned, 50 of them will be English and 50 of them will be French words. So it may appear that, oh, the child is slower to speak English because they knew fewer English Words are slower to speak French because they know fewer French words. But when you add the total together, you come out with acquiring the same amount of words or lexical items that the monolingual speaker does.

 

So people that have observationally said that their child is slower to speak because they’re a bilingual child, it’s in fact not true. Language learning or language acquisition for the child happens universally at just about the same rate. It’s just that they’re parceled out a little bit differently in bilingual situations.

 

Amy
That’s so cool. And so if the parent on the outside is feeling like it’s slower, really the net gain is so much more because it’s not delayed and it’s not the child’s not struggling by any means. It’s just a delay in them both being full sets of vocabulary.

 

Lynn
That’s exactly right. And there’s a point at which one sort of the foundations of each language are established that there’s an acceleration in adding additional vocabulary items in each of the languages that are being learned.

 

Amy
Lynn, we are so thankful for you sharing your time with us today and your expertise. I know we all learned so much. And for my fellow parents out there, I just love this message. What we’ve landed at today, this idea that we live in a world where being bilingual is an advantage, but our brains are designed to learn languages early, making it all the more important that we provide our little ones the opportunity of a bilingual environment. And we don’t have to worry about teaching them multiple languages because they’re built to acquire them naturally, we simply need to make it available to them.

 

Well, that is all we have for you today. Thanks so much for joining us on growing up Brainy. Till next time we hope you’ll subscribe, leave us a review, or best of all, follow smallTalk.tech on Instagram to join in the conversation.

Growing Up Brainy is brought to you by smallTalk. smallTalk allows your baby to engage with foreign language through play. This interactive language exposure during infancy results in what we like to call brain magic-- wiring your little one’s brain with the building blocks of a new language and gaining them a different and better brain for a lifetime. Look for our first product, the smallTalk Egg, launching this fall of 2021.

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