Language is a funny thing. As parents, we spend many months encouraging our little ones to utter their first words and begin their voyage through language. During the school years, teachers pound proper grammar into kids’ heads. It usually is not until children reach the middle years of their schooling that they are potentially offered the opportunity to learn a second language. But, is it too late? What is the optimal age for learning a foreign language?
The Brain and Learning a Foreign Language
The brain learns in amazing ways. Our brains have many compartments that are in charge of different specialties, such as the left brain covering creativity and the frontal lobe taking care of solving problems. According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, learning occurs without intervention – and introducing a second language to youngsters can be effortless. They find that in the early stages of learning, “neural circuits are activated piecemeal, incompletely, and weakly.” With more experience, those circuits become hardwired and the learning becomes automatic.
For some children, learning a second language happens within the home, through parents, beginning at birth. Children raised in a bilingual environment often have a dominant language, or one that they excel in, that is most often spoken in their everyday life. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, it is never too early to introduce a child to a secondary language, and learning two languages will not cause any speech or language delay problems for children.
Introducing a Second Language
For those parents that are not versed in two languages, the educational system or personal tutors are looked upon to introduce another language. Even short bouts of intensive foreign language learning at the elementary level sets children up for a positive foreign language learning experience. There are several benefits for introducing young children to a foreign language, such as:
- The earlier children begin learning a foreign language, the greater the foreign language skill set they obtain. Children that begin learning at an earlier age, and then continue the foreign language study in years to come, have a better chance of developing the secondary language at a higher level of proficiency.
- Learning a foreign language aides in keeping the brain healthy and boosting brainpower. Learning other languages alters grey matter in the brain, which processes information, just like how exercising creates healthy muscles. Those who learn languages earlier in life are more likely to have more advanced grey matter – meaning they will be better learners in general.
- According to Kathleen Marcos, writing for Kid Source, children that are exposed to learning a foreign language prior to the onset of adolescence are more likely to have a native-like pronunciation. Along with learning a secondary language, young children also gain important knowledge of other cultures, further broadening their outlook and appreciation of others.
When to Start
But, what is the ideal age for learning a foreign language? It is hard to determine an exact number. Around the age of three, children are ripe for hearing and pronouncing, and are just beginning to grasp their native language. This makes it an ideal time to begin introducing a foreign language. Along with learning about their native language, hearing a foreign language and being encouraged to speak it, aides in the learning of both languages. But, do not expect too much. Take it slow and keep expectations low for a positive language-learning environment.
- Start by introducing children to music or television in a foreign language within a comfortable environment. Even though you may not think your child is gleaning any information, he is getting his ears used to hearing the language, which sets him up for future foreign language learning.
- Introduce one word at a time. Most young children are not speaking in complete sentences yet, so it cannot be expected for them to learn a foreign language in the same way. While introducing the word to the child in their native language, say the word in the foreign language also, so the learning happens at the same time.
- Turn the learning into a game. Find fun ways to use the words for colors or shapes in a foreign language in your family’s favorite game. The next time your child wants to play Bingo, say the letters or numbers in the foreign language and see if he can figure it out. Making learning fun encourages his future enjoyment of learning more of the secondary language.
- Encourage your child to teach the foreign language he is learning to the rest of the family. This gives your child the role of a foreign language teacher, encouraging his brain to reinforce learning, and the opportunity to practice the skills he has gained. It also boosts his confidence and speaking abilities.
Older Foreign Language Learners
If a foreign language is not introduced until a child is in his teenage years, he is still able to maximize his learning – with some additional help. Once your child has been introduced to foreign language within the school setting, help reinforce learning at home. Often, one short class a week in foreign language isn’t enough to create concrete learning. Spending time with your child reinforcing his learning shares your desire to see his success in learning a secondary language, and offers an opportunity for some quality together time.
It is never too late to learn a foreign language. The adult brain is always ready for new information, and by using repetitive methods and immersion, the older brain is able to absorb new language learning just as well as a young child’s.
By Sarah Lipoff. Sarah is an art educator and parent. Visit Sarah’s website here.