A pervasive idea assumes that young children can absorb new languages with minimal effort, but it turns out that the science is more complicated.
By Lindsay Patterson
When my husband and I decided to pack up our comfortable lives in Austin, Texas, to move to Barcelona, Spain, we had a dream for our then-3-year-old son: He would become trilingual. In Barcelona, most people speak Spanish and Catalan, the regional language. Speaking three languages seemed like a big goal for a small person, but we believed it was possible because of one phrase: Children are like sponges.
Whenever we told people about our plans to put our son in a Catalan school, they told us about sponges. Children learn languages quickly, they said. He’ll be speaking like a native in no time.
But that’s not what happened. In September, our son started school. It wasn’t until March that he uttered his first full sentence in Catalan: “M’he fet mal” (I’ve hurt myself). But that didn’t open the floodgates of language. His teacher assured us that he understood everything — he followed directions well, and he was learning. But he stayed mostly silent. I began to worry that my child was not as sponge-like a learner as I’d been led to believe.
It’s a notion that’s hard to escape. The sponge concept is central to common preconceptions about how children learn language. In a 1997 study, researchers surveyed 80 parents in Spain about why they were sending their children to English language daycares in Barcelona and Madrid. The truism that children soak up language was mentioned frequently.
“The younger they are, the more they’re like sponges,” said one parent in an interview. “The more they absorb, the more they remember.”