When is the best time for children to learn a second language?

Whether it’s because you live in a country where the dominant language is different from your primary language, you want to give your little one the chance to better connect with grandparents and other relatives, or you just want them to have a head start when their high school language requirement comes up, if you want your little one to grow up knowing a second, or even third language, you’re definitely not alone. Up until the late ‘90s, it was commonly thought that introducing second or third languages to very young children might present problems for cognitive development, but more recent research indicates that this is not the case.

How young is too young to introduce a second language?

Up until the ‘90s, there was a commonly held idea that introducing children to multiple languages at too early of an age could confuse them, and keep them from becoming fully conversant in either one. While some researchers still think there might be a risk of that in cases where a second language is introduced young, and interrupts and replaces a partially learned first language, most reputable researchers and experts believe that the evidence that has been gathered since that time disproves that theory.

Instead, most experts believe there is no such thing as “too young” to introduce babies to multiple languages. One study showed that babies as young as three months old begin to differentiate between the syllables in words, showing that babies start to process and learn things about language long before they start to use or understand it. Another study showed that babies four, six, and eight months old can tell the difference even between languages they’ve never heard before, just based on the patterns in the languages. This shows that even very young children can tell the differences between languages, and aren’t likely to be confused by being exposed to more than one.

Many experts believe that there is a “window of opportunity” which is the best time to introduce a second language, but there is some disagreement about when that window of opportunity is. Some experts believe it’s between birth and three years old, others believe it’s between birth and age seven, and still others believe that the changes that can make it harder to learn languages later start around puberty.

How should I start introducing my child to a second language?

The second most prevalent myth about raising bilingual or multilingual children is that children learn languages so easily that all it really takes is being around another language, and they’ll start to pick it up naturally. The truth is that children who learn multiple languages at the same time have a better chance of fluency, or of speaking both or all of those languages as a native speaker, especially since things like pronunciation and an instinctive grasp of grammar rules are harder to learn, and may never come completely naturally to language-learners who start at a later age. That doesn’t mean that learning languages happens effortlessly, though, especially since, in most cases, one language is around the child more often, either because their parents speak it together or because it’s the dominant language that’s spoken outside the home in the area where they live.

It takes a lot of effort for parents to create an environment where young children start to learn a second language. For a child to become and stay fluent in a second language as they grow, it’s generally thought that they need to spend at least 30% of their time either speaking, being spoken to, or being exposed to that other language. Different families choose to offer their children that 30% in different ways.

  • One parent, one language: For families where two parents have different primary languages, many of them find that they can create the “need” factor, or the way of making sure children feel they need to learn both languages, by each speaking to the child in their primary language.
  • Inside, outside: In situations where one or both parents’ primary language is different from the language spoken where they live, many families choose to just speak their primary language at home, and trust that just by being out in the world, at school, daycare, or activities, their child will be able to pick up the dominant language.
  • Different activities: Though it can sometimes be difficult to give a child enough exposure to a secondary language this way, many families find ways to offer exposure to a second language connected with certain activities, like reading books in the second language together, talking to extended family members in the second language, or sending the child to an immersion school or preschool for the second language.

  • Ioulia Kovelman, Stephanie A. Baker, Laura-Ann Petitto. “Age of first bilingual language exposure as a new window into bilingual reading development.” Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. 11(2): 203-223. Web. July 2008.
  • Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. “Babies’ ability to detect complex rules in language outshines that of adults, research suggests.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 September 2012. Web.
  • Nienke Meulman, Martijn Wieling, Simone A. Sprenger, Laurie A. Stowe, Monika S. Schmid. “Age Effects in L2 Grammar Processing as Revealed by ERPs and How (Not) to Study Them.” Plos One. December 15 2015. Web.
  • Kaytie Norman. “When Is the Best Time for Your Child to Start Learning a Second Language?” Brainscape. Bold Learning Solutions, October 15 2015. Web.
  • Monika Schmid. “The best age to learn a second language.” The Independent. The Independent, February 8 2016. Web.
  • University of British Columbia. “Infants raised in bilingual environments can distinguish unfamiliar languages.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 February 2011. Web.
  • “At what age is it easiest to learn a second language?” The Conversation. The Conversation US, Inc, February 8 2016. Web.
  • “Frequently Asked Questions.” MultilingualChildren. Multilingual Children’s Association, 2004. Web.
  • “The best age to learn a new language?” ESL Frankfurt International School. Paul Shoebottom, 1996-2016. Web.
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