How Does Learning Second Language Work?

Language in a Nutshell

Language is a complex process by our brain using words to communicate and understand. This process is made inside the brain but with the influence of environmental factors. 

While there is no exact count for the number of languages present on planet Earth as of today, there are approximately 7,000 of it living and being used in each corner of the world. There are even countries that speak hundreds of languages. Papua New Guinea, for example, has around 840 spoken languages.

Language Processing in the Brain

It is amazing how the brain works in processing these words in order to become understandable and being understood by its own. When we use a language we have been born of, it is very easy for us to neglect that other foreign people can’t make it up at all with the said language. When a person is just starting to learn a foreign language during adulthood, the chance of being fluent in speaking is very slim. Some overcome the barrier but it only takes them to a basic conversational level.

Second Language In Adults

There is a study conducted by Cornell University using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to determine how multiple languages are represented in the human brain. The study suggests that the difficulty adult learners of a second language may have is not with understanding the words of the second language, but with the physical skills of combining the words with the mouth and tongue. This explains why most people who learn the second language find it difficult to speak fluently even though they can write the same words smoothly.

Born Native Speakers of Two Languages

A child’s brain, as they say, is like a sponge – ready to absorb learning. This is a fact and indeed the reason why we have to model appropriately around kids as they take all their environment happenings into their brains.

Learning two languages in early childhood means being a native speaker of both. Research shows that babies learn a language even before they’re born through their mother’s voice inside the womb. At birth, infants’ brain can distinguish hundreds of language sounds and slowly figure out which sound they’re hearing the most. By the age of one, they gradually lose this ability.

Second Language

My Bilingual Family

As a bilingual parent, I was often worried about my son’s language development growing up. Over the course of 5 years, I’ve spent a good amount of time doing my research on what pace does a baby born with bilingual parents talk in native tongue (English). There’s indeed a significant difference in the conversational ability of a bilingual child than a mono.

I remember a community nurse telling us to continue speaking in our born language so as to expose the little human and be able to comprehend it, if not speak at all. Just as what we’ve been doing. It’s not easy because half of the time, we have to use English command as he would not understand.

Normal Differences as Bilingual

Growing up in a bilingual home, my son is behind in his ability to speak fluently. A monolingual home raised child learns to talk at the age of 2-3, while my son barely talks at the age of 3. He had phrases at the age of 4 but if you are not used to his “talking”, you won’t probably get what he’s trying to say. This is considered concerning for some but I wasn’t worried, not a bit. I did my thorough observation and consideration on him whether he needs to be seen by a medical professional. He was not, he even started reading simple words few months after he turned 3.

It’s just been a month since a leap on his age. He turned 5 years old and started kindergarten last month and his language progressed a ton! Being in the school where everyone he hears speaks the same sound, he’s taken it fast with his talking. The “mumbling” he had at 3-4 years old while trying to talk to me was a manifestation that the language was already in his head but his motor skill to put it into spoken words was not fully developed.

There are Delays and it’s Okay

There has been a rise in “cases” of Autism in the last generation. In my opinion, Autism is over-diagnosed. A thing or two does not exactly mean something, especially to toddlers. People jump into conclusion right away and easily label kids as “in the spectrum”. That is just wrong, without considering and looking deeper into the child’s environment and roots, such as bilingualism.

Every bilingual family that I know of have speech-delayed young children. It is not something to cause panic. In fact, it’s common to kids raised in an atmosphere with two spoken languages like immigrant parents.

Bilinguals’ brain is special because it has a more complex task to tackle which usually causes delays. However, these delays have no significant negative impact on their overall learning in the long run. Nevertheless, learning a second language is pretty much the same as learning to walk all over again.

Are you or do you know any bilingual individual/family? Share your remarks about it in the comments below.

sources: Brain Connection, Wikipedia, IFL Science, Mcgill

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