If you want to study Chinese, the last place to look for inspiration is on Google, a quick search for ‘World’s most difficult languages’ will leave you with the understanding that Chinese is not portrayed as a user-friendly language for a few reasons:
With over 80,000 pictographic characters that make our alphabet look like child’s play, choosing to learn Chinese leaves you staring at what seems like a great wall of breathtaking yet indescribable characters.
If the characters aren’t confusing enough, here come the ‘four tones’, meaning that the way you say one word can give you four different meanings! This can be confusing for English speakers because they often use tone or intonation to signify questions, leading to many awkward ‘lost in toneslation’ moments.
No easy cheat codes.
Unlike other western languages Chinese has no close etymological origins to English, making learning Chinese a slower more arduous process. It’s much easier for an English-speaking adult to pick up German, as the two languages will share similar words.
But if Chinese is so hard, why do children pick it up so easily?
The critical learning period
This is based on Wilder Penfield’s ‘critical period hypotheses’ that points out a child’s ability to pick up a second language is tied to neuroplasticity. Unlike adults, a child’s brain is still developing so they have the ability to easily create new neuron links for a completely different language. Whereas past the critical learning period (12 years old) a monolingual brain will have a rigid structure making it more difficult to learn a new language.
Graph showing the link between neurological links (synapses) and age. Note the decrease from the cut-off age of 12.
But this doesn’t take away from the fact that Chinese is a very hard and complex language, unlike Latin alphabet based languages, Chinese users must learn how to write characters, a process that is difficult to program in adults but easier in children, again it all comes down to neuroplasticity. Younger children are able to make neural connections between areas of the brain that adults cannot, which is why they seemingly learn at a faster rate.
The same can be found in tones. Intonation habits are incredibly ingrained and second nature to most adults, but this is not the case for young children as they are still in the process of developing their native language. This, combined with neuroplasticity makes it easier for children to learn Chinese.
Early emersion is therefore advantageous not just for current but future language acquisition.
Setting them up for the future
Bilingual sequential acquisition occurs when a second language is introduced after the first language has been established. Yet the learning stage for second language learners’ follows the same process as learning a native language if learnt at a young age.
In some respects it’s even easier as young learners can use the language building blocks from their native language to learn and link with their second language. Children that grow up bilingual also develop distinct semantic and phonological representations of their languages, this allows them to recognize subtle differences between languages making it easier to pick up a third language even past the critical learning period.
It also means that if later on the young learner discontinues their use of the second language they are still able to retrieve those neuron links and relearn the language at a much faster rate than new adult learners.
Since the areas of the brain that govern language learning become less active as we age, it is advantageous to learn a second language as young as possible. Especially when learning Chinese, a language so etymologically diverse from English.
-Ana Coxixo (Contributor)