Children have natural ability to learn new languages
Arizona Daily Star
May 28, 2008


Tucson, Arizona | Published:

Robert Young heads the International School of Tucson. Young is originally from New Zealand.

"The research shows that there are two ways of making young children's brains bigger. One is by learning music, and the other is by learning a language. Up until about age 7, there is a part of the brain that is pre-allocated to language. If you start stimulating it by learning other languages, the brain makes use of it. If you don't, then the brain reallocates it to something else or shuts it down. So that's one sense it just makes people brainier.
Secondly, it's useful in daily life or travel or business. Thirdly, it just gives you access to other things. For example, if you can read classical Arabic or Chinese, you can read 5,000 years or more of literature.
[From] birth to age 3, the brain is predisposed toward sounds, particularly music and language. Then, roughly age 3 to age 7, part of the brain is ready to receive linguistic input, and that is the critical period. After age 7, as the brain starts to reallocate that space or close it down, it becomes increasingly difficult for most people to learn languages. And one problem in this country is that most [foreign language] programs don't start until high school, which is too late. To do it properly, you really need to learn it much younger.
If you look at places where people have two or three or four languages, it starts in elementary school, either as a foreign language program or as an immersion program. Or it starts in the home.
We need a philosophical shift. The country has to see [learning a second language] as useful, necessary, important. And following from that becomes making space for it, funding it, finding the teachers for it.
It's part of a whole discussion that needs to be held if it's going to change."
Robert Young, right, is the head of the International School of Tucson (IST). IST is a school for children ages 3 to 11 that instructs students in one of three languages French, Spanish or German.