As a language teacher I have often been asked when is the best age to start learning a foreign language. The answer to that question is, for me, an easy one – the younger the better. Research argues the debate for an appropriate age at which to start and who learns better at what age, depending on whether 'better' means faster or levels of proficiency. Age plays an important role, but it is not the be all and end all of your ability to master a new language. It also needs to be motivating, fun and important to you to succeed.
Adults tend to learn languages quicker than children, though in an analytical manner, needing to attach experiences and knowledge to what they are learning. This does not mean that they will never be able to learn to a high standard or pick up a native accent, it will just take a lot more dedication to get to that point. On average it will take 4 years to reach near native fluency with a lot of hard work and study. Children learn languages more through games, gesture, communication and songs mostly without inhibitions. The process takes longer than adolescents or adults, but is more effective in the long run.
On the continent many children start to learn a foreign language at age 3. In the UK most children start to learn a foreign language at secondary school, though this is changing in the UK with the introduction of compulsory languages in Key Stage 2 in the primary curriculum from September 2014. As much a positive impact as this will have, I consider this to still be 'too late' and 'a missed opportunity' for children to be exposed to foreign languages at a younger age. Learning a new language can drastically help children to understand their native language and be more aware of how language works. Each foreign language has its own set of rules and grammar, which often need to be unravelled to be able to produce that language. Research has proven that skills such as logical thinking, problem solving and literacy grades are greatly improved in children who learn a foreign language.
According to the critical period hypothesis, there's a certain window in which second language acquisition skills are at their peak. Researchers disagree over just how long that window is -- some say that it ends by age 4, some even 6 or 7, while others say that it extends all the way through puberty -- but after that period is over, it becomes much harder for a person to learn a new language. It's not impossible, but children in that critical period have an almost universal success rate at achieving near fluency and perfect accents, while adults' results are more hit-and-miss.
Learning a second language at such a young age doesn't hinder any abilities in the child's native language -- it seems a child's brain is wired so that all linguistic rules, be they native or foreign, are picked up quickly. Unfortunately though, language only remains in the brain with exposure to it. Just because a child becomes fluent in Italian, Russian and Portuguese doesn't mean that he or she will be speaking those languages 50 years later. Without extended exposure to a language, the child's abilities diminish, so it's important to provide continued opportunities to practice these skills.
If you are living abroad and bringing up your children as an expat, it is of great importance to note that a foreign language should not surpass native language learning. One researcher* suggests that a child's native language should be allowed to develop properly to avoid the dangers of double semi-lingualism for early learners of a second language; i.e. the child does not develop full proficiency in either of the two languages. As a teacher and a foreign language learner myself, I can only vouch for this and the importance of being aware of your own language in the acquisition of another language. Learning to speak and listen as well as productively read and write in both languages is essential.
If you would like your child to attend literacy classes or foreign language classes, please contact Carly for more information.
• Crystal, David. "How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die." Avery 2007.
• Hagen, L. Kirk. "The Bilingual Brain: Human Evolution and Second Language Acquisition." Evolutionary Psychology. 2008.
• "Cognitive Benefits of Learning Language." Duke University. Fall 2007. (June 1, 2010)http://www.actfl.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=4724
• * Scovel T, 1999 The younger the better myth and bilingual education In: Gonzalez, R (ed.)Language Ideologies: Critical Perspectives Urbana, IL: NCTE