There are countless benefits to learning a second language. From the obvious “communicating with another culture” to the more scientific “advantages for the brain” or even the good old fun, learning a new language is always a good idea.
But when can your child start reaping the benefits? Should you wait until they’ve mastered their first language? Here’s what you need to consider.
When to Start
Here’s a summary: now!
Age in language learning has always been a matter for heated debate, but all researchers agree on this: the sooner kids start, the better.
But why is sooner better? In order to understand why, let’s go over two concepts: neuroplasticity, and the difference between learning and acquiring a language.
The brain’s ability to adapt
Oxford’s Lexico defines neuroplasticity as “the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury”. In simpler terms, the brain changes in response to learning new information, experience, and injury.
Neuroplasticity is a characteristic of the human brain, regardless of age. However, it’s important to note that children’s brains are more neuroplastic. Their brains are more malleable, more flexible, and more receptive in general. This is why material children consume and experiences they go through are so important; these materials and experiences effectively shape children’s brains.
After a certain age, the brain stops changing shape with every material and experience. Speaking of age and materials, how do languages fit in?
Learning vs. Acquisition
Conscious effort vs. unconscious processes
Technically speaking, young children don’t learn a language– they acquire it.
- Acquisition is the natural and subconscious process through which you learned your first language. There is no need for learning grammar rules or conscious effort. Language is naturally picked up through communication and meaningful interactions with other people.
- Learning, on the other hand, is a conscious process that requires cognitive effort. Think of second language classes in high school: repetitive drills, conjugation exercises, etc. Of course, learning doesn’t necessarily have to be that way; choose whatever strategies you will, but “conscious effort” is key here.
Acquiring a language is easier and much more enjoyable, but here’s the catch: once you’re past a certain age, you can’t acquire a language anymore-you’ll have to learn it. (In technical terms, your brain becomes less neuroplastic.) This is why it’s best to start as soon as you can. The age at which the acquisition window closes is debatable, but it certainly closes by puberty. Some research shows that acquisition skills peak at or before the age 6-7. Children as young as 2-3 are capable of acquiring an additional language through songs, games, and natural exposure.
Time, Focus, Energy
Relatively speaking, the younger a child is, the more time they have to dedicate to different tasks. This becomes evident when you take into account that quite soon, their education is to take a larger chunk of their time than it does now. Regardless of your child’s age, sooner means more time.
Also, take a look at your child’s near future. Are they freer today than they will be tomorrow? The point is, your child probably has less on their plate now than they will have in the future. Having less on the plate will mean having more focus (and time) to dedicate to each task; and language acquisition can easily be one of those tasks.
Add to all of this children’s virtually unlimited levels of energy. Parts of this energy are for themselves to spend in their own world, of course, but some parts can also be dedicated to pursuits that will serve them in the future, such as language acquisition.
Will They Not Mix the Languages?
They will, but not to worry
Everyone engaged in language acquisition/learning will mix up the two (or more) languages. This is perfectly natural, and it does not mean the person is not acquiring/learning the language. Remember that children’s brains are very neuroplastic, very malleable; they can learn multiple languages at the same time: no need to wait for them to master their first language.
If you are bilingual and your child has not completely developed a mother tongue yet, take two factors into account: your child’s exposure to the language and their need for using the language. To prevent one language becoming superior to the other, make sure your child’s exposure to and need for each language are at the same level.
To Wrap Up
Very malleable brains, easier pick-up, more time and focus to dedicate
Language learning is a lifetime journey, and children already have a head start into it. Anyone at any age can learn a language, true, but when is the best time to start? The answer is clear: as early as possible.