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Weekly Update from the Director - September 15, 2023

Dear GISC Community,

In the United States, there are estimates that between 13 and 23 percent of the population is bilingual (the gap is partly explained that there are many US residents who speak a language other than English but are not fully proficient in the English language); worldwide, there are estimates that 43 percent of the global population is bilingual and an additional 17% of the world’s population is multilingual, meaning that more than half of the world’s population speaks more than one language fluently.

What causes this disparity between the U.S. and the rest of the world? A significant factor is that educational systems around the world – unlike that of the U.S. – stress second language acquisition much sooner.

According to a 2018 study by MIT, conducted in part by Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker, “children remain very skilled at learning the grammar of a new language much longer than expected — up to the age of 17 or 18. However, the study also found that it is nearly impossible for people to achieve proficiency similar to that of a native speaker unless they start learning a language by the age of 10.”

Indeed, this study was the first to indicate that an age beyond preteen years was still a viable period to learn a second language; previously, most cognitive and linguistic studies strongly suggested that second language acquisition is best achieved at very young ages.

Why do children learn another language at greater ease than older children or adults? Allow me to list a few reasons:

  • Brain plasticity at younger ages allows children to absorb information in an unconscious state of mind, while adults and older children learn the language consciously. Learning unconsciously allows one to absorb new information. Dr. Eleanore Smalle, a post-doc researcher at Ghent University, explains in a 2022 United Nations report that “adults often tend to translate from their first language when they are learning a new language. They try to adopt the linguistic rules that they already know, which sometimes contradict the new ones. This results in a less stable consolidation of the new language into memory. Moreover, we noticed that children unconsciously implement the new language rules and use newly acquired words in their daily life – while playing imaginary games or when communicating with peers. In other words, they repeat themselves unconsciously with the new information, which benefits long-term memory consolidation.
  • When learning a new language as a child, one typically only learns to associate new words with their meaning rather than also thinking about grammatical structures or rules.
  • Children are less inhibited than young adults; and thus are less worried about pronunciation or accuracy. This uninhibited learning leads to a greater likelihood to absorb information.

The question that begs to be asked is how we can best learn a second language as adults – research on this topic is not extensive, but technology applications are often cited as a significant boost to learning a second language as an adult.

So, here is a GISC crowdsourcing question: How did you learn a new language as an adult? If so, was it your second or third or fourth language? Please let me know in addition to sending me any comments about second language acquisition –

Thank you,

German International School Chicago is a preschool through 8th grade school that prepares students to become well-rounded, creative, and responsible global citizens. We provide students with a rigorous German-English bilingual education in a supportive and individualized learning environment.

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