Children’s ability to learn new languages is strongest between birth and age seven, and becomes much more difficult after puberty, according to new research published in the July 2009 issue of the journalScience. Younger children experience “sensitive periods,” related to cerebral cortex development, during which neural connections are more receptive to language learning influences, concluded a team of scientists from the University of Washington and the University of California at San Diego.
For example, American infants exposed to live humans speaking Mandarin Chinese rapidly learned phonemes and words from that foreign language. Utilizing brain imaging technology to document the neural signatures of language learning, researchers led by Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl confirmed that unique periods of such sensitivity occur before a child reaches the third grade, during which languages can be learned “effortlessly.” Following puberty, learning a new language becomes harder, and native-language levels are “rarely achieved.”
These latest findings add to an already considerable body of neuroscience research supporting the educational advantages of emphasizing early language learning. This is especially true for children in the nation’s schools who lack the English language skills required for academic success.
Regrettably, this is not the approach being used to educate most of the five million English language learners in U.S. public schools. In most states, fewer than ten percent of English learners successfully meet the requirements to exit into the mainstream as proficient English users each year.
This means that, on average, English learners remain sidelined in special programs for more than ten years, long missing their cognitive window of opportunity for most effective language learning. Teaching English often becomes a secondary priority in favor of others, such as preserving native languages or multicultural education. While opinions vary among educators about the ideal amount of time English learners should remain in specially-designed language programs before being moved to mainstream classrooms, three years seems to be the consensus most frequently reached.
But the reality is that English learners are much more likely to drop out of school than ever to become proficient in English. English learners, especially Spanish speakers, are very often segregated in racially and linguistically isolated settings, where the heavy preponderance of conversation occurs in their non-English, native language. This linguistic isolation perseveres, to the extent that fewer than one-fourth of English learners in U.S. schools are foreign born. Such isolation becomes cyclical, so that one in five of these English learners are actually third-generation Americans.
Science’s ever-improving understanding of human learning provides critical opportunities to improve educational quality. But for schools that continue to protect poorly-performing programs that contradict that understanding, such as segregated bilingual education that delays teaching English in favor other priorities, the children with the fewest options pay the steepest price.
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