Are children really better at learning languages? And what will the language of the future be? An expert linguist answers all.
While some theorise language is innate to humans, children are actually exposed to huge amounts of it – around 10,000 hours in their first four years, according to one estimate. As children are rarely experts in a language by then, this suggests they have a tougher time learning language than most people think.
True, it has been shown that very young children are able to perceive and distinguish between the roughly 800 sounds that make up all human languages. But, for monolingual infants, the ability to hear subtle differences is lost in the first year of life as they become more specialised in the subset of sounds or ‘phonemes’ of one language (English, for instance, only uses around 40 phonemes).
Some people worry that bringing up a child bilingually means they end up not speaking any language ‘properly’. But this is incorrect. Research has found that children are adept at learning more than one language at the same time – they just need to have the chance to use both.
Estimates range from 400 to 2,000 hours. But it really depends on who is learning and their reasons – research shows those who want to learn will pick up the language more effectively than people being told to learn.
It’s little surprise studies have suggested that being bilingual can help you learn a new language. But why? This could be as bilingual people realise that there is no intrinsic link between a word and its meaning.
Some linguists have also theorised there are differences between brains of polyglots (people who speak more than one language) and monolinguals (those who speak only one). However, the neuroscience behind this isn’t clear: researchers are still not in full agreement whether different languages are stored and accessed together or separately in the brain.
Today, with an estimated two billion speakers, English is the largest language if we include native and non-native speakers, but Chinese is the largest if we only include native speakers (almost one billion). However, when we refer to Chinese in this way, we mean the written script, which is the same for all varieties of Chinese; the spoken varieties are different and speakers of one cannot necessarily communicate with speakers of another.
Overall, with English being the language of science, the internet and much academic research, it is likely to remain an important language in the future.
However, there’s no guessing if it will be the language of the future – or how many languages there will be. Currently, 40 per cent of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages are endangered, having less than 1,000 speakers. But there are also many linguistically diverse nations, such as Papua New Guinea, whose population speaks over 800 languages. Similarly, about 700 languages are spoken in Indonesia.
People are keen to say that certain languages (think Russian, Arabic or Japanese) are harder to learn. However, it’s all pretty subjective – you’ll have a natural neurological preference to languages close to your own. This happens especially when there are lots of cognate words – that is, words from different languages that have the same etymological origin, such as ‘brother’ in English and ‘Bruder’ in German.
However, languages with vastly different phonetics will be harder to process. For example, languages such as Thai, Chinese or Vietnamese use tones to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning – basically, the intonation of words can change their meaning. For example, the word ‘da’ in Chinese can mean ‘to hang over something’, ‘to answer’, ‘to hit’ or ‘big’ depending on the tone.
But of course, if you already speak a tonal language, learning another tonal one presents fewer problems.
The main key is time. You need time to learn a language (hundreds of hours, ideally) and then you need more time to use it. Practice is essential; it needs to be regular and frequent. Numerous studies have found that being immersed in a language is the best way to learn – not simply learning words and grammar. Reading magazines, watching TV and chatting to native speakers also solidifies this learning in your brain.
Unfortunately, no conclusive research has identified a best time of day to learn. Quite simply, you may function better in the morning, others later in the day. What is more important is not being scared to speak – some research suggests adults who over-analyse may struggle picking up the subtle rules of a language.
Remember: it’s not essential that you sound like a native speaker. Making yourself understood is all that matters.
About the author – Prof Natalie Braber
Natalie teaches language acquisition and psycholinguistics. She is also the author of Pit Talk (£4.99, Bradwell Books).
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