What’s the best age to learn a new language?

 

teacher and kids looking at book

Most of us probably think that when it comes to language learning, starting at a young age is key.  But new studies are revealing that the best time for language learning may not be when you’re a toddler.

You might be skeptical about this new research at first – I know I was.  After all, it seems like there’s so much proof about babies and young children being ideal language learners.  We hear that they’re linguistic sponges, able to quickly adapt and learn to speak like a native.

And look at kids who grew up bilingual or multilingual – they usually end up effortlessly mastering all of the languages they were exposed to at home.  So it would seem that everyone else would follow suit.  But here’s where cracks in the “early is better” theory start:  Kids learning a language at school aren’t getting the same amount of exposure as children in bi- or multi –lingual homes. Nor, as language acquisition specialist Professor Florence Myles points out, are they learning and absorbing a new language the same way immigrant children are.

For kids learning another language exclusively in an academic environment, it’s a very different situation.  Very young children generally have the most enthusiasm of any students — which is pretty important when it comes to staying motivated. But when you’re a little kid who hasn’t experienced or experimented with various ways of studying and using information – and when you can’t even read or write yet – all the enthusiasm in the world will only get you so far.  Studies find that this age group learns languages much more slowly than their older counterparts.

Older kids can read and write, and they’ve already experienced mastering their own language.  They have study skills and are familiar with the expectations and methods of an academic environment.  And so researchers are now concluding that the best time for a person to learn a language is when they’re around 11-13 years old.  And even adult learners have this strategic edge on little kids.

In fact, some researchers go so far as to make it seem like teaching very young, monolingual children another language is sort of useless.  Personally, I wouldn’t go that far.  For one thing, younger children’s enthusiasm could be a positive way to get them motivated for the years of in-depth study to come.

And there’s a more concrete reason learning a language from a young age is worth it: pronunciation.  Anyone who’s studied or experienced language learning knows that students who begin at a very young age not only become familiar with a foreign language’s sounds; they can imitate them much more easily than the rest of us.

I don’t have to look far for an example.  I started learning French when I was in that ideal bracket – about 11 years old.  Today, I’m a fluent French speaker, but I can’t completely shake my American accent.  And it’s the same for all of my non-native French-speaking friends who started studying the language in middle school or after.  There’s a scientific reason for this — the brain stops being able to assimilate and imitate sounds when you’re about five years old.

So exposing a child to a foreign language at an early age still seems like a great idea.  But the good news that we can take from these new studies is that if someone isn’t/wasn’t able to have access to foreign language lessons as a little kid, all is far from lost. You can start learning at any age (and by the way, we can help you!).

by Alysa Salzberg

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