Understanding pruning and neural Darwinism (see “Windows of Super Learning Opportunity“) is leading brain-based educators to demand that foreign language learning start in the early years of school. The best time to learn, is when the linguistic windows of super learning are open their widest. Apparently, it does not make any difference whether we learn a first or second language. If a child is not exposed to a certain sound before the window for learning that particular sound closes, the brain will not wire up to recreate the sounds of that language effectively. During the time linguistic windows are open, the brain selects what it hears most often and loses the ability not only to speak but even to hear those sounds that it has not been exposed to before the window closes. Research in second-language learning indicates that the optimum time to learn a new language without difficulty, without an accent, and with proper syntax is before 7 years of age.
An infant comes into the world with universal language capabilities, able to perceive all the phonemes (sounds) in all the approximately 3,000 languages, including some of the clicks found in African dialects. But very quickly, if children have not been exposed to the correct sounds by the time linguistic windows close, their ability to possess universal language begins to get selected out. By 4 months, their ability to discriminate sounds foreign to their mother tongue begins to wane as they lose the ability to perceive foreign vowel sounds. By 10 months, the ability to perceive certain foreign consonant sounds begins to get selected out.
Studies with American immigrants show that the command of the English language is a direct function of the immigrant’s age upon arrival, not the amount of formal training, motivation, attitude, or even the total number of years lived in the United States. Those who arrive on American soil before the age of 7 do as well as native speakers. Performance steadily declines as the age of the immigrant increases. The story goes that while former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger came to America after his seventh year (at 15) and speaks with a heavy accent, his brother came before his seventh year and speaks with no accent. By the end of puberty, the window to rapidly and effortlessly acquire a foreign language is closed. Unfortunately, if you try to learn a second language after puberty, there is no correlation between your age and the ease of language acquisition or skill. Twenty-year-olds do no better than 40-year-olds in learning a second language.
The reason we speak with an accent when we learn a foreign language after our linguistic windows close is that new languages are forced to build synaptual connections on dendritic structures that hold our mother tongue networks The neural connections that let us speak without an accent, however, were either pruned because of lack of stimulation or because these neurons wired up to perform other brain functions. All new language circuits must be built upon their mother tongue circuits after puberty. This is why foreign-born personalities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Claude Van Damme maintain their accents even after years and years of lessons and living in English-speaking countries. Patricia Kukl of the University of Washington suggests that the reason we find it easier to learn related languages such as Spanish and French is that the existing circuits are able to share and do double duty. The new research makes neuroscientist Dr. Chusani ask, “What idiot decreed foreign language instruction not begin until high school?”
Research into genetically timed super windows of learning has made clear that if an individual has not received critical information at critical times in his maturation, he is left on the wrong side of the window of opportunity. As science has found with Romanian orphans, wolf children, and abused children, when critical windows are missed, the individual will play the game of life with a handicap. Educator Joseph Starling, who has designed educational curriculum to ensure that children get stimulation at the right time, says, “You want to say that it is never too late, but there seems to be something very special about the early years.” (See “Windows of Super Learning Opportunity.”)