Literature Review and Spotlight

Scientific Studies on the Developing of the Bilingual Brain in Kids and Adults


OK let’s get a bit technical so you better understand the huge and profound implications of what you are doing by either speaking a foreign language at home (in which case, we’ll call you an expert) or by bringing your kids to us, the experts in language teaching (that will be us at LangoKids Irvine).

We all have some sort of a place to go whenever we need to cite specific and special information. If you need a verse for example, you go to your Bible to find it. Throughout my years of education and pleasure reading, I’ve come across a few scholarly texts that have become like “my Bible”. They contain the secrets I hold on to and that make me a better linguist and a more proficient teacher. On this occasion, I want to open my file up to extract the great secrets hidden in it and present them to you in a way you can understand them.

The first article is called The Bilingual Brain: Human Evolution and Second Language Acquisition by L. Kirk Hagen from the University of Houston, TX.

The “mosaic of evolutionary” theory suggests that language is inherently linked to human evolution and human adaptation. Such mosaic is a compilation of the processes that happen while in the period of language acquisition or language learning. Let’s understand these phenomena:

1. Language acquisition is the process by which “children universally acquire a highly abstract, computational complex set of linguistic rules rapidly and effortlessly. As a sideline, when Rosetta Stone advertises that you as an adult can “acquire” a language using their program, it’s a fallacy. You can learn it, but not acquire it. Language acquisition can only be possible in kids within what is known as the critical period (CP), or between birth and 8 years old or so. It’s a completely unconscious and natural process, where grammar study becomes irrelevant. It’s exactly what you experienced when you started using your native language. You started naming things and saying sentences without thinking about it much or caring about forming syntactically correct sentences. If a language is acquired, in most cases, the pronunciation is going to be perfect and nobody will ever question your accent simply because you won’t have one.

2. Contrarily, language learning is linked to the process adults go through. It’s a process rather “slow, laborious, and highly variable”. Results of this process turn into some or high fluency (given certain conditions) but complete fluency and native-like accent is virtually impossible. Yes, bilingualism and language learning are possible but not the full mastering of a language and all cultural inferences.

Now, is it true that the ability to acquire a language is biologically linked to age? If so what’s the “magic” age? Let’s pin the first question for a moment and go for the second question. Different authors claimed different ages for the termination of the CP. Krashen: 5 years of age, Pinker: 6 years of age, Lenneberg: 12 years, Johnon and Newport: 15 years. Lenneberg’s CP is the one that has carried more weight and seems the most relevant and complete to this day. Under it, “as one approaches adolescence, the acquisition of native like fluency becomes increasingly problematic”. Language acquisition has been associated to the perisylvan region of the left hemisphere in the brain. He researched the possibility of kids not having a significant impairment in life if they suffered a left hemisphere brain injury. Their recovering rates were astonishing (childhood aphasia recovering rates between 75% and 100%). In contrast, adults with the same conditions a prognosis of full recovery is not attainable. Considering this and other studies conducted, acquisition differences are not simply the consequence of inadequate learning experiences, but rather a result of the fundamental changes in cognitive abilities associated with our biological makeup and age. What’s more interesting is what happens in the foreign language arena. Studies of immigrants to the United States show that “the variable age at arrival was a strong predictor of degree of accent; length of stay in the USA was not. (Whaaaat?, I have no hope. I will always sound like a Colombian speaking English…think Sophia Vergara except I am no Sophia Vergara).

In more serious terms, the paper also points out something highly fascinating to me and it's something that became a sudden realization for me. Language acquisition and language learning take time and effort. Throughout history (allow me to touch on the anthropology and sociology fields) we have learned that “It requires less effort to conquer your enemy than it does to learn to communicate with him”. Hence the importance of cooperation and multiculturalism, that although not easy, completely worth it for the advancement of the world. So, congratulations on passing your mother tongue to your children or for relying on us for such a task. You are not only giving your child a linguistic ability, but you are also expanding your children's visions and therefore, changing the world!