The magic of language acquisition: science explains it!

Why are you able to learn languages while your dog isn’t – and how does it happen? We’ve got the scoop on that – it’s pretty fascinating!

No, language acquisition is not just about babbling babies and foreign language classes; there’s a whole science behind language acquisition. 

We’ve done some extensive research, and we’re gonna break it down for you in a simple way from now on.

The adorable babbling of babies

Our journey into the world of language acquisition begins with the melodious sounds of a babbling baby. 

Long before a child utters their first recognizable word, they’re already practicing the phonetic elements of their native language! This early stage of language development is crucial, as it forms the foundation for more advanced linguistic skills.

Phonetics: the building blocks of speech

Phonetics is the study of the physical properties of speech sounds, and it plays a pivotal role in language acquisition. Babies are like little linguists, experimenting with the sounds they hear around them. 

Cute, isn’t it?!

This experimentation eventually leads to the formation of syllables and words.

As they grow, children’s brains become finely tuned to the speech sounds of their native language, distinguishing between various phonemes, the smallest distinct units of sound. This sensitivity to speech sounds is vital for effective language acquisition.

Milestones in language development

As babies grow, so does their language ability. They move from babbling and cooing to their first meaningful words. This process is highly individual, but there are some common milestones in this sequence:

  • First words

Typically, children begin uttering their first words around the age of one. These words are often related to their immediate environment, like “mama,” “dada,” or “ball.” Parents, overjoyed by this milestone, know that their precious baby has just spoken his very first word.

  • Vocabulary expansion

Between the ages of 18 months and 2 years, children’s vocabulary explode (and parents can boost it)! They learn new words at an astonishing rate, often surprising their caregivers with their growing linguistic abilities. 

  • Grammar time

Beyond vocabulary, children begin to grasp the rules of grammar. They learn to string words together to form sentences, albeit simple ones at first. This period is characterized by phrases like “more juice” or “big dog.” 

Learning by watching

Children are astute observers. They learn not only from their caregivers but also from their surroundings. One of the primary ways they learn language is through observing and imitating those they interact with. 

Brains getting smarter!

Language acquisition is not just about mimicking sounds and words. It’s closely tied to cognitive development. As children’s brains mature, they become better equipped to understand complex linguistic structures and abstract concepts.

Take a look at Emily’s case. One day, as her parents read her a story about a friendly dragon, Emily asked, “What’s ‘adventure’?” Her parents were delighted by her curiosity, recognizing that her language skills were intricately linked to her cognitive development. 

Critical period hypothesis

The critical period hypothesis posits that there is a specific window of time during which language acquisition is most effective. While the exact timing is still a topic of debate, it’s clear that young children are particularly adept at learning languages. During this critical period, the brain is more plastic, allowing for more efficient language learning.

Greg, for instance, is a three-year-old with a curious mind. His parents decided to introduce him to both English and French at an early age. They were amazed at how effortlessly he  picked up both languages. One day, he surprised them by switching between English and French while telling a story about his favorite toy!

However, this doesn’t mean that adults can’t learn new languages. They may just have to work a bit harder and be more strategic in their approach (why do you think Speaky app is here?!). We will dive deeper into it below, keep reading!

The role of input and interaction

Language acquisition thrives on interaction. Children need to hear, engage with, and respond to language for it to take root. Caregivers and the immediate environment play a pivotal role in this process. Conversations, stories, and everyday interactions provide children with a rich linguistic environment to learn from.

Meet the Smiths: little Lucy, a 2-year-old bundle of energy, is playing with her toys while her mom, Sarah, prepares dinner. Sarah starts chatting with Lucy about her day, describing her car in the garage and the pet that barks in the neighborhood. Then she asks Lucy where her toys are. Lucy giggles and points to her little plastic cars and her pet – a teddy bear.

Sarah narrates a story about the bear’s adventures, using simple words and expressive gestures. Lucy starts babbling in response, trying to mimic some of the sounds and words her mom is using.

Lucy is not just hearing words; she’s actively engaging with her mom and responding to her language. 

Theoretical approaches to language acquisition

Researchers and linguists have proposed various theoretical frameworks to explain how language acquisition occurs. Two prominent theories are:

  1. Behaviorism

This theory, championed by B.F. Skinner, suggests that children learn language through conditioning and reinforcement. According to behaviorism, children acquire language by being rewarded for using correct language and corrected for using incorrect language.

Let’s meet Gian, a 3-year-old with a penchant for exploring languages. His parents, Francesca  and Marco, are strong believers in behaviorism as a theory of language development.

Whenever Gian says something correctly, like “Thank you” when given a treat, his parents shower him with praise and sometimes even an extra cookie as a reward. Gian’s face lights up with delight, and he’s eager to use that phrase more often.

However, when Gian makes a grammatical mistake, like saying “me want more cookie,” his parents gently correct him. They say, “You mean ‘I want more cookie,’ Gian.” Gian takes their correction to heart and tries to get it right next time.

Gian’s language acquisition is influenced by the behaviorist idea that children learn language by being rewarded for using correct language and corrected for using incorrect language. 

  1. Nativism

The nativist theory, famously championed by Noam Chomsky, posits that humans are born with an innate capacity for language. Chomsky’s theory argues that children are prewired to learn language and that they have a universal grammar that underlies all human languages.

Now, meet Mai, a 4-year-old who seems to effortlessly grasp the complexities of language. She was born into a Brazilian family, with grandparents on her mother’s side living in  Germany. Her father’s grandparents live in Brazil but speak Mandarin at home.

Due to her father’s job, they have moved to Spain recently. 

As Mai grows, she’s exposed to different languages in her multicultural neighborhood. 

She hears Brazilian Portuguese at home, Spanish with her new friends, Mandarin when visiting her grandparents in Brazil and German when talking while visiting her grandparents in Germany!. 

It’s remarkable that Mia seems to naturally understand the fundamental structure of these languages, despite their differences!

In this case, Mia’s linguistic abilities align with Chomsky’s theory, which posits that children are prewired to learn language and have a universal grammar at their linguistic core.

While these theories have their merits, it’s essential to recognize that language acquisition is likely a complex interplay of various factors, including both nature and nurture.

The puzzle of kids picking up two languages at once!

As you saw in the astonishing Mai’s case, bilingualism adds an extra layer of complexity to the language acquisition process. Bilingual children are exposed to and learn two or more languages simultaneously!

More: surprisingly, they often excel in linguistic tasks, demonstrating an impressive ability to switch between languages, a skill known as code-switching.

Sofia, for example, is a 5-year-old growing up in a bilingual household, in New Zealand, where her parents speak both English and Spanish. 

From a young age, she’s been exposed to and has learned both languages simultaneously. One sunny afternoon, she’s playing with her English-speaking friends, and they’re having a conversation about their favorite animals.

Sofia excitedly joins in and says, “I love my perro! He’s so playful.” Her friends look a little puzzled, not understanding the word “perro.” Without missing a beat, Sofia quickly switches to English and continues, “I mean, I love my dog! He’s really fun.” 🙂 

Impressive, isn’t it?!

Second language acquisition in adults (you!)

You know, kids are like language-learning champs, but guess what? Grown-ups can totally pick up new languages too. It’s called second language learning, where you add a new language to the one you already speak.

Now, the thing is, your age, how motivated you are, and how much you’re exposed to the language all make a big difference. Younger folks usually catch on quicker because their brains are more bendy. But don’t let that discourage you if you’re a bit older. It’s all about the effort you put in!

Daniel’s experience highlights it: being 40 years olds, he decided to learn a new language. Unlike kids, he found that picking up the language didn’t come as natural: he had to work a little harder, study consistently, and use various resources to grasp the language. But he succeeded!

The role of the brain

Our brain is like a language learning machine. Thanks to fancy brain scans like fMRI and PET, we’ve uncovered some pretty mind-blowing stuff about how our noggin handles language.

In this brainy adventure, we’ve pinpointed a couple of star players: Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Let’s show you both.

  • The critical role of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas

Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are connected by a bundle of nerve fibers called the arcuate fasciculus. This connection is crucial for the smooth flow of language processing. When these areas are damaged, it can result in language disorders. For instance, damage to Broca’s area can lead to Broca’s aphasia, characterized by difficulty in forming grammatically correct sentences, while damage to Wernicke’s area can result in Wernicke’s aphasia, marked by difficulties in understanding and producing coherent speech.

  • The plasticity of the brain

Our brain has this superpower called “plasticity” that lets it reorganize and take on new challenges, like learning a language. Kids are like the champs of this adaptability game, but even grown-ups have a bit of that superpower (just not as much). So, the brain’s ability to change and grow is something pretty cool, no matter your age!

  • The impact of the environment on brain development

As we just said, our brains are like sponges, soaking up everything around them. 

Think about those kids growing up in homes where they hear different languages all the time. It’s like a mental gym workout for them. These little language gymnasts often end up with superpowers like being super-flexible thinkers and excellent problem-solvers. 

Genetics and language acquisition

Certain genes in our DNA are like secret codes for language stuff. These genes kind of nudge our brain in the right direction for understanding and using language.

So, thanks to our genes, our brains have a head start on this language game. But, here’s the twist – these genes can also affect how we handle language issues. They can make us more or less likely to have problems with language. So, our genes also play a role to make us the language pros we can be!

Social and cultural stuff of language acquisition

Language isn’t just a tool for talking – it’s like a mirror reflecting our shared human journey and all the amazing, colorful threads of our different cultures. 

It’s how we pass on our stories, keep our traditions alive, and really get each other on a deep, soul-to-soul level. It’s like the thread that weaves the rich tapestry of our lives together.

To sum up

Well, science has shown us some pretty cool stuff about the magic of language acquisition. From babbling babies to chatty kids, and even grown-ups learning new tongues, it’s 100% clear that our brains are wired to soak up languages like sponges. 
It only depends on you letting it dive into new languages – what about starting today?!

Other posts you might like

Start your language learning journey today!

Improve your language skills while making meaningful connections with real people around the world. Turn each conversation into a personalized learning experience, tailored to your goals.

Download the app and unlock a world of conversations!