Do you have to learn a language as a child to become fully proficient?

It is a common belief that you have to learn a language from early childhood to be fully proficient in it. True, the age at which a language is learnt matters, as at different ages we have different strengths and weaknesses, so we learn differently. But adulthood does not need to be a barrier to language learning. For example, becoming literate in primary school is a huge boost for memorising. Developing abstract thought during secondary education allows us to lift learning to a new level. Discipline to work and focus on a target make young adults very good learners in yet another way. And onwards and upwards with analysis, deductive reasoning and more skills developed with maturity.

So we can learn new languages to whatever level is required of us at any age really. We can always become proficient in another language if we have the opportunity and necessity to learn it, if that language is meaningful to us and if we are prepared to work through a considerable amount of discomfort. In other words, there are at least three factors that are more powerful than age in learning a language: Life, Love and Effort.

Life

There is a big difference in learning a language in a classroom and learning it through life in a country where that language is spoken. The latter is a far more powerful predictor of our learning outcome than our age. We all know this intuitively, so much so that we take it for granted.

The reason is the so-called social fact. This is a sociology concept. Social facts are ways of thinking, feeling and acting that are collectively established in a particular society to the extent that no individual can escape them through choice. Social facts are hence external to the person and they are constraining in nature. Conforming to social facts is a necessary condition for social participation.

Language is a mighty social fact. For example, if I only knew the Finnish language in the UK, I would not get far. I could not read street signs, nor the names of the products I am buying. I could only communicate by facial expressions, mime and tone of voice, as my words would mean nothing to my interlocutors. I could not even react to anything anyone else says. If you want to live in a society, you need to learn its language. No other choice.

If we had the possibility to choose another language and still being understood, that language would not be a social fact. This may be the situation of an expat only mixing with other expats and speaking a different language to that of the country where they live. But they would not be participating in the social life of that country.

It is much harder to learn a language without the external constraint of the social fact. So we tend to learn the language that is our local social fact, but only to the extent we need to use it and no more. If we want to learn it better, we need to create an external requirement for us to improve, such as changing profession, writing for publishing or… something else.

Love

Many adults learn a new language to an exceptionally high standard by combining the power of social fact with another formidable force: Love. Love moves mountains, including when it is about becoming an advanced bilingual person. The obvious reason is the high level of motivation during the early phase of the relationship. But love opens some other unique learning opportunities.

When we romantically commit to a native, we get a privileged access to the life of his or her family and friends. We access authentic language use and can take part in it, both in the public and in the private domain, in a way that is usually not accessible to learners.

To conduct an adult relationship in our partner’s language we have to find nuance and sophistication in communicating intimate, meaningful and potentially conflict inducing topics. And thanks to the closeness, we get corrections that other people would not offer out of politeness. The ability to give and receive learning feedback safely is also the power of love.

Effort

Can you recall the feeling of discomfort in learning another language at school? That was not because of lack of talent. It was the feeling of the brain making new connections, otherwise known as learning. Learning to live everyday life in a new language is a task much larger than any we normally undertake at school.

To achieve that effortless state, a substantial amount of discomfort must be endured over a prolonged period of time. And unless we live with native speakers, we do not even get the chance to put ourselves through enough discomfort.

However, prolonged and progressive study of a foreign language at school prepares us to interact faster when we do get a chance.

For example, I started learning English at school in Finland when I was 9. When I first arrived in the UK, aged 20, I could hardly get a word out of my mouth, but I understood a lot and could struggle through a newspaper. In two weeks I was speaking intermediate English and getting by. Learning more would have required considerable effort.

I moved to Italy aged 23 knowing no Italian at all. I immediately started an intensive language course. I was living with my Italian boyfriend and Italian students who spoke English at my level. Soon I realized that to make a breakthrough I had to tell everyone to not speak English with me. In 6 months, I was speaking intermediate Italian and getting by. In 12 months I was accepted at university. In 3 years my Italian overtook my English.

In Italian I had all three elements: the constraint of a social fact, love and masses of self-inflicted discomfort in the form of academic study in the local language. Starting English at age 9 and starting Italian at age 23 made virtually no difference to my long-term learning outcome.

In my work with bilingual families I often get asked which languages should be part of children’s life for them to become bilingual. The rule of thumb is Life and Love. What language is the social fact outside the door? Your child needs that language. What is the language of the fundamental bond between you, the parent, and your child? Your child will need the language he or she is loved in.

In many families Life and Love mean learning 2 or 3 languages. In others, it will be one. Either way is fine. We learn languages at different ages as and when we need them, and to the level we need them, but always with great Effort.

 

Soile Pietikäinen © all rights reserved.

The author is a sociologist specialised in bilingual family interaction. She helps families through private bilingual family consultancy and is the founder of Bilingual Potential, an ethical business dedicated to every child’s right to learn and use the language of his or her parents, as defined in the Article 30 of the UN Convention of the Right of the Child.

On 15 and 29 May the European Bookshop in London hosts two free events where parents can ask Soile anything about bilingual family and bilingual parenting. To book a seat at the Bilingual Cake Q&A click here.

Read also: How to manage bilingualism at home: understanding children’s response.

Photo courtesy Pixabay.

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