Losing your edge for learning languages

By Karen Podorefsky

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How many languages do you know besides English? Let me rephrase that. How many languages do you know well besides English? There is a difference between being completely bilingual versus being able to understand or carry on a basic conversation in another language. It is important for people to have a basic knowledge of at least one romance language so they can be better prepared to travel around the world or in a different area of the United States. Just knowing one romance language will aid individuals who are trying to figure out a different romance language they are not familiar with.

The Language Acquisition Theory is the process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive and comprehend language, while also producing words and sentences to communicate. Noam Chomsky, a famous American linguist, formulated the idea of the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), an instinctive mental capacity that enables an infant to acquire and produce language. Humans are born with the innate ability and desire for acquiring language and communication. Language acquisition occurs primarily during childhood in a sensitive period where the brain is most flexible. After puberty, the brain loses plasticity becoming rigid and fixed, and thus losing the ability for adaptation and reorganization. According to psychologists Wilder Penfield and Lamar Roberts, children under the age of nine can learn up to three languages. During early exposure to different languages, a reflex is activated in the brain allowing the children to switch between languages without confusion or translation needed. Once the child reaches adulthood, all reinforced languages learned at a younger age are retained without confusion between them.

But are you hopeless if you haven’t learned a language by the age of 9? I’d say not.

If only the LAD continued into your college years. I took four years of French in high school and am currently taking level 1 Spanish. We learn purely on a memorization basis, not conversational, so it is difficult to learn new vocabulary. Having taken French, I do have an advantage because both Spanish and French are romance languages. The sentence structures are similar, but the words and pronunciation are different.

In my high school English classes, I did not learn grammar very well. I learned it best through mastering French sentence structure and grammar. In English, since the basic rules have been ingrained so early, people feel as if they can form sentences based on how the words sound together and by combining basic English rules. This sound-based approach to grammar is likely to cause problems understanding how to properly speak and write in English.

Languages should be taught at an early age to avoid these problems. Most schools begin language classes in middle school.  For example, in my town students start learning a foreign language in seventh grade. This set students at a significant disadvantage, as they were trying to pick up a language after that sensitive period had already past. Meanwhile, in the next town over, students had the option of beginning to learn either Spanish or French in kindergarten. This allowed my friends from that town to have an edge; they were almost fluent in French while I was just beginning to grasp the basics. Even though they have stopped practicing French, they are still able to speak the language because they grasped it during the sensitive period.

I used to babysit a girl who, her first language was Russian even though she was born and raised in the United States. I was extremely impressed that she was able to know two languages as a toddler. But after learning about the human brain, I get it. It is easier to learn a language as a toddler. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense that her parents taught her when she was that young.

Learning to speak is more natural than learning to write. Somebody must teach you to write, but speaking can be learned by listening to other people talk. Modern technological influences are changing the relative status of speaking and writing. In order for businesses to be successful, people communicate through email and text messages just as often, if not more, than via phone or in person, since companies need to do quick business and can be spread out over states or overseas.

This holds true for any language. Being able to write is important in order to accurately convey information. However, if one is in another country picking up the language through conversations, speaking would be useful for that individual in that regard. It’s a two-way street and you need to find the right path to which language is important for you and for how it benefits an individual in the way they communicate in their daily lives.

Karen Podorefsky is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]