Are Babies Smarter Than Adults?


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Learning a language...you either love it or you hate it. What in our brain guided us as small children, who merely know nothing, to learn an infinite amount of words in the English language? What in our brain guides us today as we struggle to train ourselves to remember a whole new language aside from our native? Why was it so easy as a child? 

Did you know that the "ideal age window" to learn a new language is between the ages of birth and five? After five, this window diminishes making it much harder to grasp a foreign language. Dr. April Benasich, Little Pim Advisor and Director of the Infancy Studies Laboratory at the Center for Molecular & Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University has learned that this age is particularly important because "the developing brain unconsciously tracks the sounds and contours of the languages that surround them, noting the patterns and the subtle differences between sounds." In a corresponding study, scientists in Leipzig played a variation of syllables to babies.  What they found via electroencephalography was that babies, using the left side of their brain processing information and controlling sensory perception, memory, and speech, are able to pick up on certain pitches and sounds. They are the able to detect and learn complex dependencies between syllables (Max-Planck-Gesellschaft).

Why can babies learn multiple languages better than we college students can? 

Phonemes, which are sound units of words, mature as we age. Aging causes our phonemes to become comfortable in our brain with what we have already previously learned, pushing out or not "actually hearing" foreign syllables and sounds. Adult brains are overall less receptive. Though our brain may be getting used to being less receptive, who's to say that the techniques we once used as a child, listening avidly and utilizing the left-side of our brain, cannot be "forced" back into us as adults? A study conducted in Pittsburgh, PA suggests, "that although it may be more difficult to learn a second language as an adult, the same tools we used to initially learn our native languages also help us in acquiring a second language. This research shows that adult English language learners may be more successful if auditory sessions in which phonemes that seem particularly difficult for non-English speakers are extended and exaggerated until they are able to learn them at a normal speed."

Now, when we pick up on the new language through repetition and exaggerated learning, functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, has brought to light a process in how adults progress in learning a second language. Joy Hirsch, at Cornell University, used fMRI as she found the following: "Native and second languages are spatially separated in Broca's area, which is a region in the frontal lobe of the brain that is responsible for the motor parts of language-movement of the mouth, tongue, and palate. In contrast, the two languages show very little separation in the activation of Wernicke's area, an area of the brain in the posterior part of the temporal lobe, which is responsible for comprehension of language." From here, she and her team concluded that the reason why adults have such difficulty in learning new languages could possibly be due to a lack of sufficient motor skills--adults have a hard time forming the new word(s) with their mouth and tongue. They also made an inference in regards to listening to a new language versus speaking it. Since adult motor skills are lacking, adults may be better at listening to a conversation in a foreign language and understanding it, but they will most likely have a harder time forming a response.

When comparing the baby to adult learning process for a new language, what else are babies able to learn better than us, more mature, adults?  Is it beneficial to learn multiple languages from birth to five? Does this have a long-term effect on our learning capabilities later in life, either positively or negatively? I believe it does have a long-term effect. When you are practicing multiple languages from birth until 19 (and older), you are bound to become a quicker learner--practice makes perfect. Right?

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Aditional Sources:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2759761/

 

1 Comment

After reading your blog post, I was able to relate to it. I am actually fluent in four languages french, italian, spanish and english obviously. I actually learned all four of them between the ages of two and seven. I tried studying mandarin in high school and it was so much harder for me to pick up on it. I can barley remember anything that was taught to me actually! So I think yes (in some ways) babies can be smarter than adults.

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