Language surrounds us wherever we go – it is something so commonplace that we usually give no thought to why we can actually understand and speak a language. During childhood, we acquire our first language in a natural process by imitating the language spoken in our immediate environment. This language is usually the one that the mother also speaks, which is why it is also referred to as the acquisition of the mother tongue. Our first language is internalized by us so deeply in its sound pattern and grammatical structures that we can use it automatically and without thinking.
However, the first language does not necessarily have to be the language of the mother. For example, children whose mother speaks with a strong dialect or accent quickly adapt to the language of their living environment if the respective standard language (e.g. High German) is spoken here.
Children who grow up bilingual from the beginning of their lives, usually because their parents speak to them in two different languages, generally adopt both languages so well that one could also speak of two first languages. However, in the course of later development, one of these languages will almost always be better mastered, especially in the scope of vocabulary, the differences then become visible.
Decisive for this development is the language environment of the child, i.e. which language is predominant here. However, up to the age of about four, when brain maturation is complete, many children who have grown up bilingually still find it difficult to distinguish between the two languages. After the completion of maturation, these difficulties are generally no longer apparent.
About language learning
The younger children are, and the less they have already internalized their first language and its grammatical structures and vocabulary, the easier it is for them to acquire another language.
Thus, young children usually speak a newly learned foreign language without an audible accent after only a short time, and it is difficult to distinguish them from first-language speakers. Adolescents and especially adults, on the other hand, have considerably greater problems in acquiring pronunciation and sentence stress. One might therefore think that children in general can acquire foreign languages more easily and more quickly. However, this is only true to a limited extent. In fact, younger children have far fewer difficulties in acquiring a new language through play by imitating their foreign-language environment.
They have far fewer inhibitions about simply trying out the foreign pronunciation, since they want to communicate as quickly as possible with their foreign-language playmates. It should also be remembered that children normally have much more time to learn a foreign language by imitation.
Adolescents and especially adults can usually only invest a limited amount of time for this alongside school, studies or work, and they often lack everyday practice in speaking.
However, in formal learning environments such as in the classroom, using textbooks or multimedia language courses, young people and adults have an advantage. Although it is more difficult for them to learn pronunciation correctly right away, they can acquire grammatical structures much more easily.
Since they use their first language completely automatically, they also have a greater capacity to process the foreign language. They are also much more accustomed to working and learning in a structured and formal way.
However, learning a foreign language is much more than “just” learning another language. Rather, it represents excellent training to refresh your memory and your processing and application strategies. This means that when you learn a foreign language, you are also giving your brain a real makeover.