Today’s session teaching German to pre-schoolers got me thinking about how very young children and babies learn a language. I came across this great 10 min TEDx talk on the linguistic genius of babies. Patricia Kuhl describes newborn babies as “citizens of the world” because they can discriminate between all the sounds of all the languages of the world. Adults on the other hand are “culture-bound listeners” as we can only identify the sounds of our native tongue(s).
Between the age of 6 and 12 months babies’ brains lock onto the sound patterns of their mother tongue. This means the ability to identify specific sounds from other languages (e.g. the Japanese ‘r’) gradually decreases. This linguistic sensitivity slowly diminishes until around the age of 7 and then starts to decrease quite dramatically. By adulthood we have lost most of our ability to distinguish between the sound patterns of foreign languages, which is why it is so hard to learn a second language when we are older! And also why it is so important for young children to have access to foreign languages. Learning a second language really does seem to be child’s play.