Do you dream of your son flipping between 4 different languages as you sip Prosecco overlooking an Italian sunset or dream of visiting Paris with a daughter who can negotiate like a local?
If that’s what your into, when should you start encouraging them to start learning a foreign language? Is it as soon as they can talk, or should you hold off until they have mastered English? Let’s find out what works: Well, all researchers agree that the earlier a child starts learning a second language, the better, for more reasons than one. Some researchers say that second language acquisition skills peak at or before the age of 6 or 7. Others claim that this window extends through puberty. But, they all agree that it’s much harder for a child beyond puberty to learn a new language. Below, you will find all prevailing viewpoints and their backup arguments for your reference as a means to help you make the most informed decision possible.
Why start at the age of 3 or 4?
If you asked that question some years ago, everybody would look at you as if you were an alien. It was inconceivable for children as young as three years of age to be able to learn a second language, given that they have not yet mastered their mother tongue. Nowadays, though, research findings indicate something totally different. Studies by Harvard University confirm that the creativity, critical thinking skills, and flexibility of the mind are significantly enhanced if children learn a second language at a younger age. Preschool years, especially the first three years of life, are believed to be a vital period in a child’s life. This is when the foundations for attitudes, thinking, and learning, among others, are laid down.
"This means that children have a natural ability to learn, which is developed during the first 3-4 years of their life."
Using that ability is much encouraged because, always according to research, learning a second language is as easy as learning the first. It may sound like a huge burden, but, in fact, it’s not. The human brain is a wonderful thing. From the moment we are born, we learn by six main ways, by:
Based on the information we gain in our first few years, everything we have learned grows later in life. Research has shown that 50% of our ability to learn is developed by age 4 and another 30% by age 8. This is why three-year-olds are encouraged to learn a second language. However, this doesn’t mean that 80% of one’s knowledge or intelligence is formed until they are 8 years old. It simply means that children develop their main learning pathways during their first few years of life. A teacher at Moreton First Prep School says that 3-year olds who attend the preschool class enhance their spoken English through play and songs. They learn French at the same time, through similar fun activities, music, and stories. So, it’s not uncommon to hear little ones singing French songs at that school. But that’s not all. These children are exposed to a third language: Mandarin Chinese, which they also become familiar with quite effortlessly through games and props. And, on top of everything else, they also get to play while having a Spanish teacher watching over and interacting with them! Incredible as it may sound, learning is indeed achieved, and children don’t even realize they are learning not one but three foreign languages! Why? Because studies have shown that the younger the learner, the more they can adopt pronunciations and recreate new sounds. And, children around the age of three or four can learn through play because their minds aren’t yet overwhelmed by facts and information that needs to be stored and assessed, which is something that happens as we grow older.
“Bilingual children that learn a second language from an early age sound like a native in both.”
A study conducted by a director of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory for language and child development at Dartmouth College (Hanover) has demonstrated that after the teen years, the brain changes and makes it extremely challenging (if possible at all) for an adult to learn a foreign language. This doesn’t mean that they can’t learn it; just that they won’t do so the same way as a child because the mechanisms that help language learning are not the same as they are at ages 2-5.
“Another interesting fact is that children learn a second language better if they picked it up in their communities of families, rather than the classroom.”
And, besides the added fluency, bilingual children not only speak two languages sooner than other single-language peers but are also better in tasks that call for a shift in attention. Also, research has demonstrated that children who first mastered their mother tongue and then learned a second language became fluent in the foreign language but never managed to attain the level of excellence of those that learned both languages in one go.
What About Children from Bilingual Families?
Everything depends on the situation the family is in. For example, a child that was born to a British mother and an Italian father living in the UK can start to learn both languages the moment he is born. On the other hand, a child of school age from, say, Germany, that emigrates to the UK is forced to learn the new language – English – as soon as possible. This could take quite a few years, depending on the child’s age, to reach a native English speaker’s level. It won’t happen easily or quickly, so it’s advised that parents, in these cases, don’t have high (unrealistic) expectations around the learning of the second language.
Why learn at early adolescence (11-13 years of age)?
A study of 17,000 British children learning French at school has shown that children who had started learning at the age of eleven performed better at second language proficiency tests, compared to those that had started at around eight years of age. So far, that particular study is the largest one of children learning a foreign language in a classroom setting, ever. These findings were consistent with those of other studies of Danish students learning English and Swiss children learning French. Also, it has been found that adolescents who learn a foreign language before they turn 15 have a better pronunciation of the second language, which is described as almost native-like. Again, though, the younger they start learning the second language, the more they develop a native-like accent. On the other hand, children older than 15, as well as adults, are found to be better at learning a new language than younger children. This is because there are experiential and cognitive limitations in young children than adolescents and adults don’t have, which allows them to learn faster.
What if a second language comes to replace the first language?
In this case, if the first language hasn’t been developed properly and the child was forced to learn a second one, there are dangers that should be avoided.
“According to research, double semi-lingualism in young children of a second language doesn’t allow the child to be proficient in either one of the two languages.”
As for parents that push their children to spend more time learning a second language, they should be careful. Maybe, the child will have to reduce or even cut some other subject(s) to find enough time to devote to second language acquisition. Is this something you’d want for your child? Older learners, though, are more efficient learners and need less time to “conquer” something new. Therefore, when acquiring a native-speaker-like pronunciation is not highly sought after, adolescents will do just fine.
What about Bilingual Children that Mix words from their Two Languages? Should you be Worried about That?
It is common for children that are learning two languages to mix words from one language to the other. This is call “code-switching” or “code-mixing” and is not something that should worried you. And, it certainly is NOT a sign that they are struggling with bilingualism, so you can heave a sigh of relief. In fact, code-switching is a highly appreciated and skilled form of language use in the academic community. It is a natural form of using the language among people that learn two languages and is perceived as a complex, yet rich, form of discourse. Yes, you may come across viewpoints that condemn code-switching coming from education and health professionals that see it as a hurdle to the language development of children. This couldn’t be further from the truth, though. It’s been evidenced that all bilinguals (no matter their age) code-switch from time to time, which is not an indication of language disorder or confusion. When it comes to pre-schoolers who learn a second language, they can code-switch for a plethora of reasons. Given that bilingual children are usually not equally proficient in both languages, they will code-switch while having a conversation with others. They will, sometimes, select words they are more familiar with, regardless of which language they come from. This, of course, results in mixing up words from both languages in a sentence. It should also be noted that bilingual children (even two-year-olds) are remarkably familiar with the language preferences of the person they are having a conversation with. This makes them perfectly capable of using the best of both languages to deliver their message across their peers. So, it’s not uncommon to see bilingual children using the language their conversation partner is best fond of! Once they reach the age of four, bilingual children are more aware of which language to use in the community and public places. You can also expect them to have developed sufficient vocabulary in both their mother tongue and second language and be more able to sustain a conversation in one language, rather than code-switching. Clearly, small children are miraculous language learners with great potential and abilities we parents, don’t believe they can have at such young age! If code-switching is uncommon in their community and household, children will adapt to the patterns and separate the languages. If, on the other hand, code-switching is common, they will continue using code-mixing to fill the language vocabulary gaps, which is definitely praise-worthy!
“Also know is that even bilingual children with learning problems and disorders don’t code-switch that often. They just choose which language to use when talking with peers, like any other typically-developing child of their age.”
So, no worries there, either. It has become apparent that your little angel has great potential and abilities that will help them learn a second language from a very young age while acquiring a native-like pronunciation. Of course, many factors can contribute to the successful acquisition of the second language, with teaching methods used in the school environment being among the top ones. Also, young, bilingual learners are extremely bright and can easily swap from one language to the other with relative ease, to appeal to the peer they are having a conversation with, their family, and community. And, although research is still an inconclusive and contrasting as per the right age for a child to start learning a second language, you could always give your toddler the opportunity to prove themselves to you. If you see them struggling, you know better than any expert what to do. After all, there is always time to learn something new, even at a slightly older age. But, I’m pretty sure your adorable pre-schooler will give you a pleasant surprise if you give them a chance! What’s your experience on your children learning a second language? Do you have any tips or hacks you can share?