The Science Behind Learning Multiple Languages

Neurons that fire together, wire together. What can neuroscience teach us about learning languages?

Most of us dream of mastering multiple languages. Is there something different going on in the brains of multi-linguists? The structure and functioning of the magical human mind may offer some clues on how to be multilingual.

How many languages do you know?

The Age Factor

Given a choice, almost every human on earth would choose to learn more than one language. But, when it comes to learning languages, there is an elephant in the room that most of us forget to consider- the “Age Factor“.

Now, now – I can already hear you shout, “But age is just a number!”
To a great extent, this is true. Nevertheless, age does play a role in how efficiently our brains (and bodies) perform and absorb new information. Don’t believe me? There’s science to back it up!

Distinguished German cognitive psychology and linguist Eric H. Lenneberg has made some fascinating discoveries about our complex brain systems. Through his study, titled ‘The Biological Foundations of Languages‘, he was able to prove how the ideal age group for mastering any language is 2 to 15 years.

The Neuroscience of Learning Languages

From birth, we are all bombarded with exciting words spoken in our household. These first words are part of what later becomes our ‘mother tongue’. This language is stored in one teeny-meeny part of the brain, known as the Broca’s Area.

Between the ages of 2 and 15, if an individual learns two or more languages at the same time, it activates the same part of the Broca’s Area where our mother tongue is stored. However, after a certain age, our thinking engine reduces its plasticity (its ability to adapt quickly) and thus, any language learnt after the age of 15 activates a completely different part of the Broca’s Area.

Image result for broca's area
Yup, that itsy-bitsy bit is in charge of a whole lot!

This mechanism explains why most adults find learning a language harder, compared to younger children. It is simply because as we get older, our brain assumes that a “new language” is not as crucial as the ones learnt earlier, and so decides to shove it into a corner.

The (Forever Young) Neuroplastic Brain

Children also have a higher capacities for imitation and accent free pronunciation. Just pause for a second and think about it. When you were younger, every little moment was so special, wasn’t it? It’s the same with language. Young kids are most appreciative of the communicative value of words and phrases. They are, what we could call, ‘Clean Slates’.

If you’re wondering how your child can master multiple languages, now you know exactly what you need to do. Start them young!

If you are reading this for yourself, don’t worry if you have crossed “the age”. While it is true that the brain reduces its plasticity with age, it is also neuroplastic. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.

Neurons that fire together, wire together.

As long as you keep the brain active and engaged, with consistent work, it will form new neural connections over time. You may take longer than the average 10 year old to master a new language, but now that you understand the mechanics behind it all, you can teach your brain to learn anything new.


Also read: How ‘Translanguaging’ Makes Learning Languages Faster

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