First, let’s discuss the differences between adult and children’s brains. When you are born, you have approximately 1 billion to 3 billion neurons in your brain. A neuron is the basic nerve cell in the brain that is responsible for sending and receiving information. What a neuron does is much more complicated, but for our purposes here, let’s use this basic definition. Neurons have arms called dendrites and at the end of these dendrites are axons. While each axon reaches out to another neuron, there is a space between them. These gaps are called synapses and it is where electro-chemical information is passed between the neurons.
As mentioned, as a child you have between 1 to 3 billion neurons in your brain, which allows children to soak up information like sponges. However, when you get older, your brain sheds neurons that it doesn’t use and begins to insulate the neuron dendrites it uses the most with a fatty substance called myelin. This myelin sheathing allows for much faster communication between the synapse gap and the neuron. Basically, turning these neurons into communication superhighways. So, as an adult, you are able to think more quickly on areas that you’ve practiced. For example, if you are a doctor, you are able to think through diagnoses quickly; however, unless you’ve practiced law frequently, you might be less effective as a lawyer than someone who has been practicing law for as long as you’ve been a doctor. This is all thanks to the myelin sheathing on your neurons’ dendrites.
There is a drawback to this and that as you get older, it becomes more difficult to learn new information as the neurons for learning that information is fewer than what they were when you were a child. While shedding neurons as an adult might seem scary, this allows us to be able to be experts in fields and to not be overwhelmed by information. When you are an adult, you have about 1 billion neurons. But as a child, you have much more than that. This is why learning languages as a child is so important.
The pathways in the brain of a child have not been solidified yet (so to speak in regards to myelin sheathing) and are able to make connections with other neurons more quickly. Language learning are children’s superpower due to this ability to make connections. What’s even more awesome is that the development of language pathways stay around as the child becomes an adult. Everything from music to mathematics becomes easier because the pathways for understanding languages has been more or less “hardwired” into the brain from an early age.
Thus, language learning at an early at not only helps a child learn that particular language more fluently and natively, but it also helps a child to understand the more abstract languages of mathematics and music in their future academic careers.
Writer: Amber Rikkonen, Linguajoy Education Coordinator and Linguajoy English Club teacher, PhD Student in Linguistics