Some people pick up languages like colds, or sunburns—without effort, through simple immersion in the atmosphere. Others can’t hear the word ‘conjugate’ without flashing back, in shame, to the classrooms where they failed, so long ago, to shake the curse of monolingualism. What exactly is it that allows the first group to stride around making small talk in Spanish and reading Kafka in the German while the rest of us struggle with just one language? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of language experts to find out.
Professor of Developmental, Behavioural and Cognitive Neuroscience and Director of the Laboratory for the Neural Bases of Bilingualism at the University of Houston, and the author of The Bilingual Brain
People aren’t totally in control over when (or whether) they learn a second language—a lot of it is environmental. If you’re exposed to a second language when you’re younger, there’s evidence that you’ll be better not just at that language but at learning a third or fourth as well.
But the big question people ask is: what is in my control? And for the later-language learner, research shows that what becomes increasingly important is the musical ear. When people ask me “why do I have so much trouble learning another language?” I ask them: “can you sing happy birthday?” Invariably, people who have trouble learning another language say they can’t sing in tune.
It has to do with being able to make foreign sound discriminations. You can detect the difference in a note—you can hear it. You can also detect the difference between, say, the ‘D’ in English (as in ‘dead’ or ‘door’) and the D sound in Spanish, which is almost like a ‘th’ (as in ‘the’) but not quite.
Michael Erard has a book called Babel No More about what he calls super-language learners, or hyperpolyglots. He points out that these people have both a good ear and the ability to step out and think about the grammar abstractly. Meanwhile, people who don’t have a good musical ear tend to have stronger accents, but may rely a lot on grammar, because they need the rules to guide them. Good language learners can do both—they can talk about the rules abstractly. At the same time, they have a good feel for the language and can hear what is right and wrong intuitively.
Lecturer, Human Communication, Development & Hearing, University of Manchester
As a language development researcher, the most obvious answer to me is that age is a major factor in how well people will learn additional languages. The younger you are when you start to learn a new language, the better you will be at that language and the more native-like you will sound. One reason for this is that there is actually a huge range of language sounds that humans can produce, but any given language uses only a small subset of these to make words (English for example has ~40 different sounds). Babies initially start out quite sensitive to all of these: they can tell the difference between these sounds and make sounds that aren’t used in their language. But as they start to learn their language, they focus in only on the most important sounds. They stop discriminating between those sounds not in their language and they narrow their production to the sounds that are in their language. This means that as you get older, it gets harder to pick out and use sounds that are not in your native language.
We also see age differences in learning things like grammatical rules, about how words in a language are organised and used. The earlier a language is learned, the less likely a speaker is to make grammatical errors. For example some languages, like Italian, use articles (the “the”) in more cases than we would in English. The later a speaker learns their language, the more likely they are to make grammatical errors (e.g., Italian speakers using too many articles in English; English speakers using too few articles in Italian) and to have difficulty learning new grammatical rules.
What this shows is that young people have a huge advantage that makes them better at learning multiple languages. But learning multiple languages when younger also seems to influence how well a person will learn additional languages. There is evidence that people who are already bilingual are faster and more efficient at learning another language than monolinguals. This could be because they have more diverse language knowledge to relate to the new language, or already have well-developed skills at switching between different languages.
So, both being younger and already having a second language under your belt seem to make it easier to pick up multiple languages.
Assistant Professor, Psychology, Boston College, and Director of the Language Learning Laboratory
There are two crucial factors that affect how many languages you can learn: environment and age. People who are immersed in a language learn it much better. There are good classes and bad classes, but nothing beats having to use the language every day. The effect of that daily, real-life practice is enormous. Regarding age: Children are phenomenal language learners, particularly if they are immersed in the language. Children who grow up in polyglot communities (where multiple languages are frequently spoken and you need to know all of them to get by) pick up all the languages extremely well and without necessarily any explicit instruction. So if you want my advice on learning a lot of languages: be young and hang out with people who speak those languages. Beyond that, there is some person-to-person variation, but for the most part this pales compared to the two big effects of environment and age.
PhD student, Linguistics, University of Michigan, whose research centres on language contact and variation in Spanish-speaking populations
There are several factors that determine how good someone is going to be learning an additional language.
First and most important is motivation. There are two types of bilingual speakers: elective and circumstantial. An elective-bilingual speaker would be someone who learns Spanish in high school or college in order to get jobs or increase their marketability. A circumstantial-bilingual speaker is someone who, for example, immigrates to a new country and doesn’t speak the language, and for whom learning that language becomes a sink-or-swim issue. Circumstantial learners tend to pick up the language faster, because they have to.
The second factor is age of acquisition. The earlier you learn a second language, the better you are at it. We know that kids are better at picking up new languages. Bilingual children are also likely to learn an additional language faster, because they’ve had more exposure to different ways that different languages encode grammar and vocabulary. Greek, for instance, has two base-words for the colour blue; and in Kichwa, you have to put a morpheme at the end of every verb that encodes how you know the information you’re saying—i.e., whether you know it firsthand or got it from someone else. The rage in timeline of what we call the Critical Period for language learning is quite wide. However, some studies have shown that just after six months of age, infants exposed to only one language start to demonstrate difficulty in distinguishing sounds that aren’t from their language.
Another big factor is institutional support for language learning. In a lot of states in the US, learning a second language isn’t really prioritised. From a top-down perspective, what really matters a lot of the time is what courses a school is offering. Are they offering just Spanish, or are they offering Chinese, or do they have a bilingual education program? Are they just teaching Spanish as a subject or is it like a truly bilingual program where they’re teaching maths in Chinese and science in English? Different kinds of bilingual education models would, I think, drastically change the way that people in the U.S. attain a second language.