When we moved to Barcelona, we had a big decision to make about our children’s education. They could go to an English-speaking school where they would speak primarily English and learn some Spanish; or they could go to a school where the primary language is Catalan, and they would have some instruction in Spanish and English.
We chose to go for the Catalan school. First, our children speak English and will continue to master the language because we speak it and read in it at home. Second, we weren’t sure exactly how long we’d live in Barcelona, but with no current plans to leave, we wanted to settle in, learn the local languages, and be part of the community rather than living on the edge of it. Third, we wanted to take advantage of the valuable opportunity for our children to master new languages learning from native speakers, which isn’t easy to come by in U.S. schools.
The Struggle in Immersion Language Learning
So off our children went to a Catalan school right next to our house. It’s a small school. The teachers are sweet and nurturing, and the children generally are too.
My children were three and four and a half years old at the time, which means they were still very young but fairly articulate in their native language. Both of my kids are expressive and often have a lot to say.
Suddenly, they were thrown into an atmosphere where most of the children didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand their classmates or their teachers much of the time. It was frustrating for them.
Immersion language learning is a great way to learn a language, but it’s a painful way to learn one. Think about it. Think about showing up for work and not understanding anything anyone is saying. People are talking, laughing, working on projects; and you don’t understand a word of it.
Are They Sponges?
I lost count of how many times people told me my kids were “sponges” and would pick up the language in no time. Sometimes people would give us arbitrary deadlines, like they’ll be speaking in one year, or six months. The truth is, as with everything else in life, it depends on the situation and the child.
The problem with saying, “they’re sponges” is it discounts the intense struggle that children go through when they are thrown into a school where they don’t speak the language. It ignores the frustration and exhaustion of spending hours upon hours day after day surrounded by people who all understand one another while you sit on the outside, trying to keep up, trying to understand, trying to be part of the group.
Adults will easily discuss their struggles moving abroad—not understanding, not being understood, having to learn and adapt to new cultural norms. Adults band together with people who speak their language for support and commiseration. But for some reason, the constant refrain about children is “They’re sponges,” and “What an amazing opportunity for them.”
Maybe it’s just one of those refrains we hear in polite conversation, like how the automatic answer to “How are you?” is “Good,” or “Fine.” Probably many people haven’t sat down to think about what it would feel like for a child to walk into a school where they don’t speak the language.
However, there’s another idea at play here as well.
Do Children Learn Languages Faster Than Adults?
There is a commonly held belief that children learn languages faster than adults and more easily than adults.
After hearing the word “sponges” so many times while watching my own children struggle to pick up a new language, I began to wonder do children actually learn languages faster than adults? If so, why do children learn languages faster than adults?
The “critical period hypothesis” asserts that children’s brains are more receptive to learning languages. According to the “critical period hypothesis,” children learn languages more easily because they’re brains are still developing, and the plasticity of their brains allows them to use both hemispheres to learn the language while adults would use only one hemisphere.
It is true that adult brains and children’s brains are different, but according to an article from TELC (The European Language Certificates), both types of brains have their own advantages when it comes to learning a language. For children, “Researchers claim that the young mind has a more dynamic structure, that a 2-year-old child has twice the brain connections (or synapses) as an adult. Grasping to use such connections, new knowledge is absorbed into the brain like water into a sponge. When the child gets older, the brain determines which of all the new knowledge is most important, cutting off loose data it deems less relevant. This is particularly true of a child’s native language, though the learning window applies to additional languages as well.”
On the other hand, “While the adult brain is most definitely different physically, specifically in the region known as Broca’s area, we are just as capable of learning new languages,” according to TELC. Adults “have a wealth of life experiences” they can draw on for context, and “the adult is by far a more intellectual creature,” TELC explained.
Furthermore, a study from the University of Essex “suggests the true reason why young children may learn languages easier has more to do with the fact that they simply have more time and fewer responsibilities,” TELC said.
A Little Empathy for the Immersion Learner
Children heading off to a new school where they don’t speak the language have a struggle ahead of them. It’s a struggle they’ll overcome. Hopefully, they’ll become more resilient. Perhaps they’ll strengthen their nonverbal communication skills. In the end, they’ll come away with a second or third language, which can be a huge asset.
In the short-term, they may not want to go to school. Their behavior may backslide. They may grab instead of asking. They may make friends the first day, or they may play alone for a while. They may come home exhausted or sometimes angry. They may feel a little lost.
They can use a little empathy and understanding. I went to parent night at my children’s school and sat through an hour-long meeting in Catalan. It was a little uncomfortable knowing everyone else understood, wondering what one of the parents asked, wondering if there was something important I was missing. At the end, I thought to myself, “Wow. This is what my kids do all day every day.”