Young children are said to pick up languages with a sponge-like ease, but for many older children and adults at different stages of life learning a foreign language is an overwhelming, if not an impossible, task. Or so it would appear.
When we focus on young children learning any language, it is recognised that input is much more ‘organic’, and as such, is a natural state to develop a language fully. Children learn implicitly; that’s to say they absorb and process a new language without having the whole cognitive process described to them beforehand. Therefore, the younger you are, the better you are meant to be able to pick up a language to sound ‘native’.
Much research has been done into the cognitive development of children and their optimal learning age. According to the critical period hypothesis, (CPH- a hypothesis based on research done in the 1950s) there’s a certain window in which second language acquisition skills are at their peak. Researchers disagree over just how long that window lasts – some, such as Krashen (Lateralization, language learning, and the critical period: Some new evidence., 1973) say that it ends by the age of 5 or 6, while others say that it extends all the way through puberty – but after that period is over, it becomes much harder for a person to learn a new language. It’s not impossible, but children in that critical period have an almost universal success rate at achieving near fluency and perfect accents, while an adult learner’s results are more hit-and-miss, losing the plasticity needed to develop accent.
The CPH theory identifies so-called “critical periods” during which we’re more likely to acquire a second language with different levels of proficiency. Seliger, in his research paper Maturational constraints on the acquisition of second language accent (Seliger et al., 1982) break down the ages as follows:
- First critical period: acquiring a second language before 6-8 years: This is the best period of implicit learning. Neuroscientists justify the end of this first period by the decrease of our brain plasticity starting around age 5. Learning in this period, children would be more likely to reach native speaker fluency without any foreign accent. This argument is supported by the type of brain cells involved in the mastery of sounds. They would cease to develop around age 6-7.
- Second critical period: after 8 years old but before 14-16 years: Children’s language acquisition would experience some degradation compared to the previous group. Children would still be able to speak with native-like competence but probably with a foreign accent.
- After 16 years old, the exposure to a new language would definitely define you as a second language speaker, with a level of proficiency (including grammar, syntax, vocabulary and accent) never equal to native speaker ability.
However, learning a language at a young age doesn’t instinctively mean that as an adult you will be able to speak that language. Many factors come into play, such as exposure and interest. As an example, a British friend of mine, who was brought up in Singapore, learnt Malay from her ‘ayah’ as a child, speaking it better than her native English. The family left Singapore when she was 5 and returned to the UK, and as a result she was never exposed to Malay again, or required to speak or learn it, the result being that now she can’t speak a word.
Some people claim that it is better to wait for a child to learn the basics of a language well, before making the child learn another language. This way, they think that the child will be able to “transfer” the knowledge learned to the new language. Even though the child could be learning a second language well at an early age, by not exposing the child to that language we could be depriving the child of several years of optimal learning.
In addition, many people falsely believe that a child’s speech can be delayed by teaching two or more languages at the same time. Some children raised bilingual do take a little longer to start talking than those raised in monolingual households. The delay is temporary, however, and according to experts, it’s not a general rule. Unfortunately, parents who raise concerns about the speech development of their bilingual child are often told to stick to one language. People used to believe that bilingualism coud cause language delay. However, “research indicates that bilingualism does not cause delays in either speech or language acquisition,” says Ellen Stubbe Kester, president of Bilinguistics, which offers bilingual speech-language services in Austin, Texas. Even if your child has already been diagnosed with some kind of speech delay, raising him bilingual won’t make his speech any more delayed. “Studies have found that children with language delays who are in dual language environments gain language at the same rate as those in monolingual environments,” says Stubbe Kester.
So finally, when is the best time to learn a new language? As soon as possible and anytime thereafter. The best time is… right now!