I am frequently asked about the best age to learn a language and usually there are two concerns from the person asking the question:
1) are they too old to learn a language, and
2) is their child too young to learn a language.
Let’s start with the first concern: can you be too old to learn a language? The answer is unequivocally no! You are never too old and it is never too late to learn a language, and if you have the interest and opportunity, then you absolutely should.
In fact, it is a highly recommended activity as you age because the process of learning a language helps to exercise your brain, much like exercising a muscle, and has been proven to improve memory. Learning a language is even a recommended activity to stave off Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia.
But even though it is never too late to learn a language, the fact is that the best time to learn a language is before the age of 6 years old. This is the age when the window for learning a language begins to close. After this, it becomes progressively harder to master the language with native-like proficiency, particularly to perfect pronunciation and syntax. Just to be clear, you can still become fluent, but you might not pass for a local.
Another wonderful reason for learning a language from a young age is because of how easy it is. As a child, the whole world is about exploring, discovering, playing and having fun. Children are fearless learners and language is part-and-parcel of this whole process of natural and seemingly-effortless learning. Children absorb language with amazing speed and dexterity, and importantly, they boldly try to use it. From their first words in their mother tongue, they are boots-and-all giving it their best go. They get corrected all the time for all sorts of language infractions, but they power on and use it. As adults, we have a lot to learn from kids. We typically take a structured, academic approach to learning language with rote learning, and get bogged down on boring verb conjugations and noun declensions, and get stuck on formal and informal and masculine and feminine. And we get corrected and we don’t like it. We get disheartened. We get frustrated. And then we give up.
And lastly, another fantastic reason for learning a language as a child is because of the brain boosting effect. When a child learns a language, they benefit from significant and life-long cognitive changes that make them smarter. There are ample studies that prove that bilinguals have improved memory, increased divergent thinking, faster decision making, increased creative thinking and more. Why? We think it has to do with the synapses and density of grey matter in the brain. A child’s brain is jam-packed with synapses – in fact, about double the number of synapses as adults. Over life, these synapses are either used or they die. By learning a language, we increase the number of synapses used which is why bilinguals seem to have more synapses and denser grey matter. So as it turns out, being ‘dense’ upstairs is a good thing.
Now, let’s tackle the second concern: is it possible to be too young to learn a language?
Well, in this case, it depends. Children are exposed to language from inside the womb and babies have a proven ability to recognise and even distinguish sounds from different languages from birth. It is an innate gift given to all babies. And there are many, many places around the world where children are routinely exposed to and immersed in multiple languages from birth as a normal and natural situation.
The concern from parents is that their children might not be able to cope with the extra stress of learning multiple languages, but the evidence shows that a child’s capacity for learning is INCREDIBLE. The research on bilingualism from birth shows that there is a minor delay of about 3 months in starting to speak, but once they start speaking they are bilingual. Boom.
But this research is relevant in an immersive environment, such as if you have bilingual parents or live in a bilingual community. In the case of teaching a child a foreign language when it isn’t your language, it’s a little bit more challenging for the parents and carers who are doing the teaching. Learning a language is a long-term project, and the parents and carers have to stay focussed and energetic for the long haul. If they start too early, they can burn out and give up before the child starts to use the language or gain a passion on their own. For this reason, I often find it easier for the parents if they wait until the child is at least speaking in their mother tongue because then the parents receive reinforcement as their child uses the language. And even better, as the children start to read they can start to help themselves and the process of learning a language begins to snowball.
Language is innate for children and they learn it with ease from before they are born. The earlier their exposure to language begins and the more immersive the experience, the better. But learning a language is a marathon, so parents need to pace themselves to get the best outcomes.
When I’m asked this question about the best time to learn a language, I always think of the Chinese proverb about planting a tree: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.