Do Infants Make the Best Polyglots?

Spoiler alert: No, they don’t.

Not necessarily, at least.

I often hear the common lament from people my age and older: “I’m way too old to start learning a language now!” Especially in a culture where foreign language study is far from top priority, it comes as no surprise that Americans use this as a reason not to venture into other languages. Still, this idea cripples many people’s desire to study language in other parts of the world as well. How have we grown so accustomed to drawing a direct correlation between age and language proficiency?

There are two specific arguments that help perpetuate the idea that “youth is the mystical elixir for language learning”. The first one, an argument with considerable footing based on scientific research, claims that an infant’s earliest stages of cognitive development are a critical time window for developing an ear for spoken language. The second, a much more abstract theory, focuses on a child’s large capacity for learning new things and being open to unfamiliar experiences.

I had my first experience with serious language study as a preteen. My school required its seventh grade students to begin thinking about languages that year, and take Latin as well as either Spanish, French, or Mandarin Chinese. I chose French, but my main interest was actually Japanese, which I chose to study on my own. It was different from learning as an infant, of course, but it was also pretty enlightening to learn my language strengths and weaknesses, exercise new linguistic and memory techniques, and practice newly learned phrases with native Japanese speakers. I was less concerned at that time about how my age would affect the process.

The first TEDTalk video I have ever watched, a talk called “The Linguistic Genius of Babies” by researcher and professor Patricia Kuhl, was also my first exposure to the idea that babies are master language learners. I remember losing my breath when she presented a graphic of the language capabilities of humans throughout the course of our lives, which was simply a curve jutting downwards as the age increased. As her audience chuckled at this telling piece of information, she says that you cannot find a researcher today who would go against that bit of data.

It is true; many studies of cognitive development in youth and neurology would support this notion. Specifically, somes studies have found that, when an infant hears speech, the parts of the brain associated with speech and motor skills are active regardless of the language, whereas even a few months later the infant responds more readily to words in his or her mother language. This would suggest that infants are less biased with the sounds of different languages, and thus would pick up the subtleties in even the most distinct of languages.

Furthermore, adorable baby babble is a form of something linguistic researchers call “motor planning”, which is simply how infants practice certain movements such as speech, eating, and walking, in order to coordinate the influx of new information with their own behavior. In other words, baby talk is actually a useful way for infants to sort out the new sounds and words they learn each day.

This leads me to the second argument: that babies, taking in the world for the first time, are better at language because they are unbiased in which sounds they take in. The adult brain is, theoretically, already well-steeped in its mother language, and through prior knowledge, prevents itself from being as open to the new experience. This works on a larger scale as well; adults are, on the whole, less likely to accept a new cultural experience or unfamiliar lifestyle than a baby would, which stifles their ability to fully devote themselves to a new language.

Now, for all intents and purposes, let’s assume that the claims made in these arguments are all true and significant. Does it necessarily mean that adults’ language skills will always be inferior to those of children and babies? The answer to that question depends on whether or not the adult is willing to work hard enough to surpass the linguistic advantage of infants. The biggest issue then becomes finding equivalent and equally effective tools in teens and adults that would aid the language learning process.

Oddly enough, this can mean simply letting go of more serious study habits, and learning language for the love of it. An article from TIME refers to an MIT study that an adult’s memory system, already in place and fully functional, may get in the way of the natural learning processes that allow us to learn new sounds or grammar rules. As the TIME article suggests in its title, “Don’t try so hard.”

Another study in the Journal of Neuroscience found that letting the brain’s default functions take over, rather than relying on heavy repetition or reading textbooks, was the perfect state for language learning. Dr. Yury Shtyrov, a neuroscientist at Cambridge, claims that in each of his studies, the brain “learned best when it was relaxed and not trying to remember anything at all.” In fact, as previously mentioned studies have found, it is very possible for humans to learn language while sleeping. This might explain why infants still have an advantage. When they learn new sounds and words, they learn without the pressure and overthinking that adults face dealing with a new language. These studies seem to conclude that the answer is just not to try at all, to relax.

Of course, you might be thinking sarcastically, I never thought of that one! But not “trying hard” may instead indicate a change in the way we view language learning as an adult. Rosetta Stone, a popular immersive language learning resource, has gone far to replace the standard view of language study: business Japanese, Farsi during your commute, traveler’s phrases in Swahili. Rather than optimizing the content and giving you what you think you need, it starts in a similar fashion that an infant might start learning. You hear a word, and you say it back.

Perhaps the best way to learn language, then, is not to “learn” it at all. After all, language is an experience, intertwined with cuisine and way of life. By treating it as such, we give the power back to the culture and people surrounding it. In my own experience, learning Japanese for the fun and knowledge of it ended up being much more effective than my laborious and systematic French classes. Whether you take professionally instructed language courses or pick up phrases by conversing with a native speaker, understanding the social and cultural aspects of a language is vital to the process of truly mastering it. Many multilingual adults describe the feeling of becoming a different person when they switch between languages; thus, it only makes sense that starting a new language means starting a new life, and embracing the adventures that come with it. When it comes to language, it looks like adults still have a lot to learn from babies.




Nia is a sophomore at Tufts University studying as an International Relations/Anthropology major with a concentration in the Eastern Asia region.