Why are children more successful at learning a new language compared to adults? Elissa Newport has devoted her career to studying human language acquisition, including the learning differences between children and adults. In her “less-is-more” hypothesis, she posits that children are better able than adults to learn languages because, paradoxically, they have fewer cognitive resources available to them. They naturally catch on to small parts of a language — sometimes making them even more regular than they were in the input language — and acquire its more complex or irregular aspects as they mature. In contrast, adults struggle to master a new language because they try to analyze the complexities from the start and do not as readily find the broad patterns. Newport’s most recent work uses functional MRI to examine how signed and spoken languages are represented in the brain and how language is reorganized after brain damage or disease.
March 6, 2014