Until the 1990s, many American parents refrained from teaching their young children a second language for fear of confusing them.
In fact, as recently as 1999, researchers had published papers claiming that teaching your child a second language before they have mastered a first language could result in double semi-lingualism; i.e., the child does not develop full proficiency in either of the two languages. People who follow this school of thought believe children should not be exposed to a second language until the age of approximately 11-13 years.
However, most current research suggests this fear is unfounded, and evidence suggests that we may never be able to become perfectly bilingual if we start learning the second language after age 10. There are, indeed, many benefits to starting to learn a second language as soon as possible.
Being Bilingual vs. Being Fluent
Being bilingual and being fluent in a second language are not quite the same thing. Anyone who has taken the time to become fluent in a second language can tell you that. Becoming fluent in a second language is almost like memorizing your times tables. It can feel like second nature, but almost everyone has experienced forgetting what 7 x 8 is. (The answer is 56, in case it slipped your mind!)
Similarly, those who are fluent in Spanish (for example) may need to occasionally refresh themselves on when to use “por” vs. “para” (both mean “for” in English, but are used for different situations in Spanish). But being bilingual means you can think in either language easily, and misusing “por” would be akin to saying something like “There is fewer snow in Florida than New York.” A person fluent in English may confuse “less” and “fewer,” but a native or bilingual speaker would not make that mistake.
Clearly, learning a new language is much more difficult than memorizing your times tables, or even memorizing thousands of new words. It also entails proper pronunciation and understanding a completely different grammar structure, and that’s why starting as early as possible yields the best results.
Language and Your Child’s Brain
Clearly, if your goal is to have your child learn a second language, it would be preferable for your child to be bilingual as opposed to fluent. Your child will have a much easier time speaking two languages if his or her brain learns both language structures at the same time.
Let’s take a look at some of the developmental changes that occur in the brains of babies and children. This information can help us make informed decisions about guiding learning.
The First Month – Newborn babies develop new synaptic connections at the rate of up to three billion per second (Kotulak, 1996). Everything that a baby hears, sees, feels, tastes, and touches is absorbed by the brain and stored in its memory cells.
One to Six Months – In this time period, babies are capable of making sounds used in all the languages in the world. However, a child will learn to talk using only the sounds and words in their environment. That’s why you may never be able to properly roll your Rs or pronounce Xhosa, an African “click” language.
Six to Eight Months – The baby’s brain has about 1,000 trillion synaptic connections. After this age, the number of connections begins to diminish.
Age 10 – About half the connections have died off in the average child. The average adult has approximately five hundred trillion connections, so the number has reached a stable state.
Age 12 – Prior to about this age, the brain has been a sponge. It is during this period that the foundations for thinking, language, vision, attitudes, aptitudes, and other characteristics are laid down. After this stage of development, the windows close; the fundamental architecture of the brain is complete (Kotulak, 1996).
According to this model (Dryden & Vos, 1997), it is clear why some believed it was best to start teaching a second language at the age of 11-13. The child could more easily understand the lesson, and would likely seem to make progress more quickly than a younger child. However, a child who is first exposed to a second language at this later age will not intrinsically learn it in the same way a baby or toddler would.
Other researchers claim that the window for language learning closes even earlier, by age 6 or 7. Therefore, the best age to start learning a language is essentially from birth, or as early as possible. There isn’t a fully complete answer to this question, but most linguists now agree: the sooner you get started, the better.
Better Late Than Never
Remember that you can still learn a new language past the critical period. There are tons of benefits to exercising your brain by practicing a new language, so don’t be put off by the idea that you’ll never speak on a native level. Tools like Brainscape can make it fun and easy to practice a second language (like Spanish, French, or Chinese), at any age!
Dryden, G. & Vos, J. (1997). The Learning Revolution. Auckland, NZ: The Learning Web.
Kotulak, R. (1996). Inside the Brain. Andrews and McMeel.
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