Eli and Nathan speak two languages. They learned Spanish from their dad and English from their mom when they were very young. (Handout)

Eli and Nathan speak two languages. They learned Spanish from their dad and English from their mom when they were very young. (Handout)

It can be harder for adults to learn new languages.

It can be harder for adults to learn new languages.

This kindergarten class in Anchorage, Alaska, spends three hours each school day learning in Russian and three hours in English. (AP/Al Grillo)

This kindergarten class in Anchorage, Alaska, spends three hours each school day learning in Russian and three hours in English. (AP/Al Grillo)

Teacher Julia Puentes, left, high-fives student Mathew Botros, age nine, center, during an English class at a bilingual school in Miami. (AP/Lynne Sladky)

Teacher Julia Puentes, left, high-fives student Mathew Botros, age nine, center, during an English class at a bilingual school in Miami. (AP/Lynne Sladky)

Immigrants Boris Erkin, background center, and Suleyman Zaburov, foreground, attend an English course in Brooklyn, New York. (AP/Rick Maiman)

Immigrants Boris Erkin, background center, and Suleyman Zaburov, foreground, attend an English course in Brooklyn, New York. (AP/Rick Maiman)

The Word Map

Posted: May 1, 2021

“To me, it’s kind of easy to learn two languages.” That’s what seven-year-old Nathan Jimenez says. His brother Eli agrees. “I feel like I learned English and Spanish at the same time,” says the nine-year-old. “I learned because when I was a baby my Dad spoke Spanish to me. I heard it a lot and kept practicing. Even now he speaks mostly Spanish. That helps us practice even more.” Kids tend to have a much easier time learning a second language than adults. Their super-flexible brains are like sponges. They absorb new words, sounds, and even grammar without even knowing it.

Listen first, and then speak. That’s how God wired a child’s brain to grasp communication. Hearing a new language repeatedly creates a sort of map in a child’s brain. The map connects objects, images, feelings, and actions to new sounds. New words connect to symbols.

Eli and Nathan are bilingual. Their family members speak two different languages. Their dad is from Guatemala. Their mom is from the United States. From birth, the boys heard both Spanish and English. Their brains mapped out both languages.

“Brain scans show that in a bilingual child, all the sounds of the child’s two or three languages share a single large map, a library of sounds from all languages,” says Dr. Arkady Zilberman.

When an adult tries to learn a second language, some things get in the way. The adult brain’s word map is already created. That makes it hard to connect new sounds with familiar objects. They don’t make sense on the word map. Becoming bilingual as an adult may be hard, but it’s not impossible.

Learning a second language is like solving a really big problem. Problem-solving takes practice and patience. “Kids learn by being talked to,” says Eli. His advice for adults? “It’s good to watch something in Spanish if there is an option.” To adults trying to learn a new language, Nathan says, “Do not give up!” These boys think being bilingual is the best!