Having visited South Korea I started permeating into studies of linguistics. Moreover, meeting people from all over the world makes me curious in psychology and sociology. It has become unequivocal and fascinating to investigate different features of a country, its history and how it could affect acquisition of the second language. Being brought up among Russian people, the majority of Kazakh people spoke only the Russian language. However, the young generation has been studying not only Kazakh and Russian, but many other foreign languages. For instance, it was arduous to speak English with Chinese people, but really easy to learn Korean, while it converses to students from Slovakia or Czech Republic.
Unlike any other countries, Kazakhstan has become a prodigious indicator of how people of different races and nationalities could overcome linguistic barriers. Officially, there are hundreds of nationalities in Kazakhstan and because of the history and geographical position, we can face people speaking diverse languages. At the same time we face the problem of thinking. When I was at school my teacher always criticized me for thinking in "Russian" then transforming it into English without changing a structure of a sentence. All of this mess made me confused.
To fully comprehend these at the same time simple and complex questions, it's got to be started from the initial phase of language acquisition - brain. If we imagine acquisition as a map, I decided to begin from psycholinguistics, because it is a study that combines the fields of linguistics and psychology.
For example, it might focus on how a baby develops their specific language by excluding others, also study the process of language acquisition, or how the human mind develops, perceives, and produces both spoken and written communication.
The reason for that is before adapting in society, we are nurtured by our parents and we process different sounds around us. Study of language acquisition is an important side of psychology, which sheds on how our brain works even as adults.
Since for about a decade in Kazakhstan we have been talking about unity of three languages and it because of that schools change the age of English language learning almost every year. Personally I started to learn English when I was 11 years old, so I ask myself do I know English language worse than kids nowadays, does my age affects my mindset during my studies? In my opinion psycholinguistics tries to give proper answers, so that's why it is the first major element in language acquisition.
So in this article I will try to give answer to one major questions:
What is the appropriate age for the second language acquisition?
During my research I tried to find the answer from two different perspectives. The first one is observation part. We all know that babies have several steps of speaking process. According to famous linguist Patricia Kuhl babies under 8 months of age from different cultures can detect sounds in any language from around the world, but adults cannot do this. Since between 8-10 months she considers babies as "citizens of the world", it means that babies are not bound to any types of language, but from 8 months, they start to "categorize" it.
Between 8-10 months of age, when babies are trying to master the sounds used in their native language, they enter a critical period for sound development. Doctor Kuhl explains that in during experimentation they compared a group of babies in America learning to differentiate the sounds “/Ra/” and “/La/,” with babies of the same age in Japan. Between 6-8 months, the infants produce these sounds with the same kind of frequency. However, by 10-12 months, after several training sessions, the babies in America detected “/Ra/” and “/La/,” sounds much better than infants in Japan
She explains these results by suggesting that babies “take statistics” on how frequently they hear sounds in their native and non-native languages. Because of frequency of such sounds occur in English language, the American babies recognized these sounds far more frequently in their native language than the Japanese babies. Kuhl believes that there was a shift in baby's mindset so they got used to the environment that they are in and their brain adapted to certain sounds, in other words babies became “language-bound” listeners.
It might seem that all we need is just sound and speech, that are crucial in baby's development. So the question is why do not we just let babies to listen radio all day or watch TV or playing video games on mobile devices, this bright colored things catch infant's attention so fast. In fact we know that some toddlers operate these devices much faster than they start to produce any kind of speech.
However, according to Kuhl's research, face to face contact is extremely important for babies to learn the way of talking. Another experiment was conducted where Kuhl's team exposed 9 month old American baby to Mandarin language and made him to interact with Mandarin language speakers, audiovisual recordings and then looked on the impact that this exposure on the babies' ability to contrast Mandarin and English phonetics when a baby is 10-12 month old. Shockingly, twelve laboratory visits featuring in person interactions with the native Mandarin speakers were sufficient to teach the American babies how to distinguish the Mandarin sounds as well as Taiwanese babies of the same age. However, the same number of lab visits featuring the audiovisual or audio recordings made no impact. American babies exposed to Mandarin through these technologies performed the same as a control group of American babies exposed to native English speakers during their lab visits.
So it is obvious that all of this is because of baby's interactions with others, it engages the critical element in brain, the social part of it, helping children to communicate with others in their native and non-native languages. Simply, language is not just a technical skill that can be learned through making baby to watch cartoon for all childhood, it is a special gift that is handed down from one generation to the next.
The second one is scientific perspective. Scientists in Browne's university discovered interesting fact about baby's brain. Researchers studying brain development in young children who were acquiring language expected to see increasing levels of myelin, a nerve fiber insulator, on the left side. They didn't: The larger myelin structure was already there. Their study underscores the importance of environment in language development.
In the Journal of Neuroscience, they published an article about explosion of language acquisition, it happens between 2 and 4 years old, when brain is not reflected in substantial changes in brain asymmetry. As we know language ability is localized on the left side of the brain. That's why researchers expected that there will be more myelin - fat material that insulates nerve fibers and helps electrical signals to zip around the brain - developing on the left side in children entering language acquisition at its critical point. But MRI showed totally different result, than they expected.
“What we actually saw was that the asymmetry of myelin was there right from the beginning, even in the youngest children in the study, around the age of 1,” said the study’s lead author, Jonathan O’Muircheartaigh, the Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at King’s College London. “Rather than increasing, those asymmetries remained pretty constant over time.”
He is currently working in Brown University's Advanced Baby Imaging Lab. With the help of MRI machine they look at myelin of toddlers and babies. The amount of myelin bursts rapidly in the first few years of life.
They imaged brains of 108 children between ages 1 and 6, in search of myelin growth in and around areas of the brain known to support language.
Asymmetry in myelin remains constant over time, study found that the relationship between specific asymmetries and language ability changed. To investigate that relationship, the researchers compared the brain scans to a battery of language tests given to each child in the study. The comparison showed that asymmetries in different parts of the brain predicts ability to use language properly at different stages of life.
“Regions of the brain that weren’t important to successful language in toddlers became more important in older children, about the time they start school,” O’Muircheartaigh said. “As language becomes more complex and children become more proficient, it seems as if they use different regions of the brain to support it.”
“We found that between the ages of 2 and 4, myelin asymmetry doesn’t predict language very well,” O’Muircheartaigh said. “So if it’s not a child’s brain anatomy predicting their language skills, it suggests their environment might be more influential.”
So in conclusion the second language acquisition is much easier when a baby is 10-12 months old. However it does not mean that it should be taught as soon as possible. There are numerous approaches to teach it using different methods. Like methods created by Dr. Casasola from Cornell University or Janet Werker, the scientist who tried to find correct methodology with Patricia Kuhl.
This topic is essential for our country because of so many ethnics and people who speak different languages are brought to learn English, as their secondary one. We have people who speak only one Russian or Kazakh, people who return from China or from somewhere else, people who lived in closed communities and so on and when government is trying to make them learn by one system, it creates chaos and necessity to study in places like studying centers and with tutors.
It might be clear that in the end all that is needful is the combination of both psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics and what kind of consequences it may bring when all sides would be considered.