Starting Language Learning Early

Author: Mary Field, 
Date: 09/21/2023

Many adults have memories of struggling over French verb tables in high school and never quite achieving fluency. Other adults may have proficiency in a second language, but feel self-conscious about their accent or reading speed. The obvious conclusion is that it is better to start learning a language early, much earlier than the typical middle or high school language learning experience of Americans. There is a lot of evidence to support this idea.

Is Immersion for Kids Better than for Adults?

The most crucial ingredient in language learning is time spent actually exposed to the language, specifically language the learner can understand. It may be tempting to play some German opera for your baby and hope for the best, but people need to be able to understand what they are hearing as well. This is why the typical baby-parent exchanges are short, simple and focused on the here and now: “Is this your foot? Yes, this is your foot” (parent wiggles a foot.) It takes about 2,000 to 3,000 hours of learning to achieve advanced language proficiency. Babies and young children have nothing but time, so It is much easier to achieve the thousands of hours of language learning necessary for proficiency before going off to college or to work.

Secrets of the Brain

Children and babies have more sensitive ears than adults do. This ability may also help them acquire language faster and help them achieve more native-like pronunciation in the second language. The brain of a baby is constantly making new connections and will continue to make connections. The great housecleaning of unnecessary connections, a process called synaptic pruning begins after the age of two. There is evidence that there is a relationship between synaptic pruning and language learning, so again, earlier is better.

Children’s Other Advantages

There are also several subtler reasons that young children tend to have an easier time picking up a second language. Children are less self-conscious than adults. Children are more likely to just go for it and use their new language, rather than pause and peer down at a phrasebook like an embarrassed adult. Young children are also blissfully free of the limiting beliefs that adults have. Adults may look at the monumental task of learning to read thousands of characters and instantly psych themselves out of even beginning to study.

There is No Better Time Than Now for Your Child

It is never too late to learn a new language. There is plenty of evidence people who begin learning a language later in life can achieve high levels of fluency. Children, however, do have many advantages when it comes to learning languages. So it makes sense for children to start learning a second language as early as possible. Their brain structure and hearing give them a leg up over adults, but perhaps more importantly, they have the time and the disposition for language learning that adults just do not have. 

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