In my studies abroad and within my language-related work, I’ve heard plenty of second-language speakers. Yet I’ve only met one person who spoke my language as a second language with native-like fluency. I actually couldn’t believe it was his second language.
Why does learning a language seem so gleefully easy for babies, but so cruelly hard for adults? Why is it that the better you get at learning in general, the worse you perform in learning a language?
Here are your two culprits.
- The brain
- The learning process
For babies, learning means choosing. A three-year-old has about twice as many neural connections (synapses) as an adult. When synaptic pruning kicks in, weak connections get deleted while those that are used get a boost. So, as the brain gains in efficiency, it must let go of some opportunities.
This operation is obvious when it comes to language learning. A study by Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson shows that, if you miss the boat and don’t get early exposure to a language (yes, the famous critical period), you’ll likely never reach native-like proficiency (sorry).
For example, babies at birth have the amazing capacity to distinguish the sounds of all human languages, but as they grow up, their brain cleans out the unused connections, and this sensitivity to other languages gets radically reduced.
Similarly, it seems impossible to perfectly re-acquire a gender-category system if you didn’t develop it as a kid (unlike English, most European languages attribute gender to nouns).
Now that the bad news is out of the way, let’s see what we can learn from the way babies master their native tongue.
Second language acquisition feels like climbing Mount Everest because we typically engage System 2 (see my post on this topic). When you study German in your living room or classroom, you emphasize that rational, deliberate and conscious learning process. You sit down and try to find ways to assimilate the material, right?
Children, on the other hand, master their native tongue exclusively through System 1, and don’t even need feedback about whether they’re getting it right. Unlike System 2, which takes place in the prefrontal cortex, System 1 uses the limbic system, where the learning process is implicit, instinctive and spontaneous.
That’s why immersion is so effective. Of course, sheer exposure plays a big role, but this method also enables System 1 to kick in and open up a whole new type of learning.
So what’s the lesson for those trying to pick up a foreign language?
First, relax. Feeling overwhelmed is normal. Your brain needs time to create new pathways. Also, bear in mind that some aspects of second-language learning have no critical period. Second, as peak learners now know, call upon the power of System 1 (stay tuned for more info on that).