Young children have a greater ability to acquire language than adults because their brains are more plastic and more able to absorb new information. Additionally, young children have not yet fully developed their first language, which allows them to more easily pick up new grammatical structures and sounds. Furthermore, children are less self-conscious and more likely to take risks with language, which can make it easier for them to learn a second language.
The Science Behind Learning
Neural pathways in the brain form through a process called neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt in response to new experiences. In young children, this process is particularly active as their brains are still developing.
When a child is exposed to new learning experiences, his or her brain forms new connections between neurons, called synapses. These synapses are responsible for transmitting signals between neurons. When a child repeatedly experiences the same thing, the connections between neurons strengthen, and a neural pathway is formed.
For example, when a child hears a new word, the brain forms new connections between neurons in the auditory cortex and the language processing areas. As the child continues to hear the word and learn its meaning, the connections between those neurons strengthen, and a neural pathway for that word is formed.
The more a child is exposed to new experiences, the more neural pathways are formed, which leads to the development of language, memory, and other cognitive abilities.
As children get older, their brains become less malleable, which makes it more difficult for them to learn a new language. The process of neuroplasticity slows down, and the brain becomes less able to form new connections between neurons. This means that older children may find it harder to pick up new grammar rules and pronunciation and may have more trouble remembering new vocabulary.
What’s more, older children are more likely to be self-conscious and may be more resistant to making mistakes, which can make it harder for them to take risks with language and learn in the way that young children naturally do.
Plus, older children have already developed their first language, which makes it more difficult to learn a second language because they must constantly compare and contrast the languages, which can lead to interference. The brain tends to translate the second language first before there is understanding and the ability to reply.
It is not impossible for older children to learn a second language; however, it may take more time and effort than it would have when they were younger. With the right approach and motivation, anyone can learn a second language at any age.
An immersion experience tends to be the best type of language learning environment. We learn our first language by having no choice to speak or hear anything else. Immersion with a second language mimics this experience with another language to create the same beneficial, fast learning potential with the second language.