Studies are inconclusive about the best age to start learning a second language, although they generally agree on one thing--the sooner the better.
Up until the late 90s, many parents believed that teaching their children a second language from a very young age would lead to confusion and mental development delays.
In fact, as late as 1999, a paper was published that claimed teaching your children a second language too soon would result in double “semi-lingualism.” That’s to say, your child speaking two languages equally badly.
They would never develop the full proficiency of their classmates because they would be trying to master two languages at once. According to this study, the best age to start learning a second language was at around 11-13 years, when the brain was further developed.
This fear is thought today to be largely unfounded and, in fact, the opposite has been revealed to be true. The later you leave learning a second language, the lower the child’s chance of achieving full fluency in two tongues.
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The Difference Between Speaking Fluently and Being Bilingual
Actually, far too many people claim to be bilingual and I am probably one of them. You see, being bilingual means that you speak both languages equally well and that you can flip between them with ease.
You don’t make grammatical errors and they both come equally naturally to you. Your accent is undetectable. That’s not the same as speaking fluently with a horrible twang and the occasional trip up in the present perfect. Learning a second language as an adult almost always leads to these kinds of problems.
Even translators who speak two languages will almost always translate into their native language. It’s very rare to be completely bilingual and it's a gift that you can give your child, without them really even realizing that they’re putting in the hard work while doing it.
Use it or Lose It
Not everyone is in agreement about the fact that one must continuously use a language or risk losing it. It’s true that like your body, your mind has memory as well. A trained athlete, for example, who takes a few months off, will recover his physique faster than someone with no prior physical training.
The same is true of the mind, where learning a second language is concerned. Here’s a little anecdote for you. I learned French from a very early age and up until I was 18 years old. My school wasn’t particularly advanced and languages were not their focus. But what I lacked in vocabulary, I made up for in pronunciation. I sounded like a native French person when I spoke.
I then stopped using French and began to learn Spanish pretty soon after. My Spanish began to cannibalize my French. As I spoke less and less French and used it very rarely, Spanish took over. My French is now horrible, yet I can still read L’Etranger from cover to cover without a problem.
And my French accent is 100 times better than my Spanish accent. I still sound like a native when I can get the right word out.
If I were to move to Paris tomorrow, I would expect my French to come flooding back and to have a far easier time than if I had never learned it. So, in my opinion, your languages that you don’t use are not lost, they’re merely dormant.
According to a study by Scientific American, there are other reasons to “use it or lose it,” when it comes to learning a second language, as languages change and evolve over time. If you spend several years outside of the loop, you’ll lag behind in vocabulary. There will be new words and phrases that wash over you.
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What's the best age to start learning a second language then?
Some studies suggest that the best age is after six, but before puberty. Others say that bilingualism can still be achieved after soon after the onset of adolescence. But they all agree that the window after puberty is narrow and that, as you get older, learning a second language becomes corresponding harder.
Starting as Young as Possible
My daughter is two years old and already learning three different languages. It’s not that I am a staunch educator or that I send her to institutions during playtime hours. She just happens to be product of an intercultural marriage. And we live in a different country.
I speak to her in English, my husband in Argentinian Spanish and at daycare, she is taught in Valencian. This is rather like Catalan, a kind of mash of all the latin tongues together, with noticeable accents of Italian and French.
I have to admit that compared to some other children (parents must never compare their kids to others, yet we all do) she is probably speaking less. There are not many full sentences in her repertoire and she has a strange combination of Spanglish. She also comes out with some words and phrases that I have never heard of and adds her own garbled language to this colorful mix.
Compared to a friend’s child of the same age who speaks only English, you could say that she is behind. But, she will reap the benefits later on. And not only in terms of the languages.
Learning a Second Language Has Other Benefits Too
In fact, not only does my daughter eat, live and breathe these three languages (three and a half, if you consider that Spanish and Argentinean are almost two different languages) but the daycare center that I send her to has an educative model that works on the “plasticity” of young minds.
They stimulate the kids in five different languages, by teaching them colors, greetings and so on. I almost keeled over with pride when she beamed a smile at me a greeted me with a hearty “Ni hao!” the other day.
One might argue that teaching anything to a child at such a young age was not really worth the effort. After all, how many memories do any of us actually still have from being three years old? Yet, it’s not all about retention of words.
A study by the University of Harvard found that children benefit in many other ways from learning a second language earlier on. They have enhanced creative skills, critical thinking and a more open and flexible mind than children who have not learned any other languages.
The study argues that preschool years (that’s to say, the first three years of a child’s life) are vital to their future learning. This is when the foundations are laid for their way of thinking, attitude and so on.
So, even if your child decides to reject their language background later down the road in favor of math or science, they will still have benefited from the base that learning a second language early on gives them.
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If you’re thinking of learning a second language, but you’re already into your twenties thirties, forties, or more, don’t despair. While most of the odds are stacked against you, there is evidence to suggest that you have several advantages over younger learners.
Studies showed that older learners did better on vocabulary tests and that life experience is also very valuable when making associations.
The takeaway? The sooner the better! Every minute you waste contemplating learning a second language is a grammatical bellyflop just waiting to happen.