January 03, 2020

Photo Credit: Olga Kimentyva (gettyimages) 

*This piece was originally published on January 4th, 2019*

Learning a second language is tough. You have to consider grammar, pronunciation, and, sometimes, words that don't even exist in your native language. And the conventional wisdom had been: if you want a child to learn a second language, start them as young as possible.But a new study has found that there’s a little more leeway than we originally thought. We talk with Boston College assistant psychology professor Joshua Hartshorne about his and his colleagues’ research and what it means for aspiring hyperpolyglots.

Three Takeaways:

  • Hartshorne and his research team analyzed data from more than 600,000 people who had learned English. He found that immigrants who moved to the U.S. before the age of 10 had the same fluency as those who were born in the U.S. After 10, that proficiency starts to fall off.
  • One of the theories to explain why language proficiency begins to diminish is that people have already become comfortable with their first language by age 10, and understanding their native language gets in the way of learning English. But Hartshorne is skeptical of that hypothesis, since kids can continue to learn other languages well into their teens, even after they are well acquainted with how their first language works.
  • One of the things that puzzles Hartshorne about kids’ ability to learn a second language is that children are not quick to master other skills. As he puts it, “If you wanted to find somebody who would be really good at learning to fly a plane, you wouldn't get a toddler. If you wanted to get someone who was fantastic at chess, you wouldn’t get a toddler. If you’ve spent time with a child, you know they’re pretty useless. But they can learn languages so fast. And that’s the mystery.”

More Reading:

  • Why are some people so good at speaking multiple languages? The New Yorkers says a lot has to do with genetics.
  • Americans’ language skills are lacking, and The Atlantic reports that a big part of the problem is our teacher shortage.
  • Want to answer some of the questions that Hartshorne used to identify language fluency? Take the quiz here.

language, Education, Learning, Joshua Hartshorne,

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