At What Age Should You Start Learning A Second Language?
Studies show children excel at learning foreign language. The linguistic and cognitive benefits for young people have inspired countries around the world to incorporate language learning into educational policy. So which nation has the best curriculum in the world?
Scientists and educators universally agree that adopting a second language benefits learners of all ages. Whether motivated by travel, career, or general self-betterment, picking up a new language opens doors and expands the mind.
However, the community debates whether it’s “easier” or “better” to learn foreign language young, especially when scientific evidence indicates an ideal language learning “window of opportunity” for children.
Almost every person on earth starts speaking as a baby, and whether you were a slow-starter or a child genius it likely only took you a couple of months to acquire the basic skills. Book publisher Scholastic explains how babies are born with the capacity to make 40 sounds and the combination of these sounds makes words and language, which is why so many words in young children’s speech sound the same (think “mummy” and “dummy”). From there, children listen and learn from their parents and friends, building their banks of sounds until they can fully-form words. The process usually takes a couple of years, but it’s the quickest way to learn language fluently.
Short of suggesting you enroll your baby in a language training course from the moment it takes its first steps, the developmental reality makes a strong case for incorporating foreign language learning into basic education.
Why Kids Make Natural Linguists
There’s proof that learning a second language when you’re younger can make it easier to excel. Scientific studies identify a “critical period” for learning language from early infancy to puberty. During this period, children readily absorb the rules of a new language and imitate the sounds they hear most naturally, developmentally primed to acquire the second language as they did the first.
In theory, it’s easier to teach children new language when their flexible minds are already engaged in learning to speak in order to survive. According to Language Stars, while adult learners “work through an established first-language system, studying explicit grammar rules and practicing rote drills,” young learners enjoy “flexible ear and speech muscles that can still hear the critical differences between the sounds of a second language, as well as reproduce them with native-like quality.”
Making Language Learning National Policy
Some experts say children under twelve have the best language skills—any older and they lose the ability to mimic foreign sounds—while others contend that adolescents have the easiest time becoming fluent. Regardless of whether a given portion of the period is more “critical” than the rest, consensus says learning language from an early age gives learners a leg up: kids have natural skills to aid them in learning language and the exercise strengthens muscles involved in critical thinking and problem solving.
These compelling facts have parents and educators around the world eager to incorporate language learning into the early childhood curriculum. Some countries have taken the responsibility upon themselves by instituting foreign language learning as part of national educational policy. Notably, some European and Asian countries start teaching children English at age five or younger, and these individuals become the sort who can switch between conversations in a variety of different languages.
Is there a policy that perfectly applies the scientific findings? Who gets language learning right and who fails the test? How does language education vary around the world?
Learning Language In European Schools
Language education ranges significantly across Europe. On the continent with the most countries in the world, it’s no surprise that the legislation varies from country to country and that proficiency varies as well.
In England, learning a foreign language was a part of school curriculum for children aged 12 to 14 for the majority of the twentieth century. In 1904, the Board of Education published the first of its annual Regulations for Secondary Schools, requiring children to learn a secondary language for four years.
However, the government has since abolished this ruling. Secondary schools are no longer obligated to teach foreign language at all, and a study found teenagers at schools in England had the worst language skills in Europe. The government is now taking steps to rectify the situation by making it compulsory for children from the age of seven to start learning a language.
In Germany, students must learn a foreign language beginning in secondary education level (age 12) and often this language is English. Languages on offer vary from state to state, but besides English the most popular choices include French, Spanish, ancient Greek, and Latin.
Young Italians start learning English at primary school from age six. Italian pupils continue learning a secondary language at first grade secondary school which they attend between the ages of 11 and 14. Language study culminates when teenaged students master a language for the first two years of further education; some will go on to learn Latin, depending on what kind of specialised school they attend.
In Spain, students start learning a foreign language at primary school, at the age of six. This schooling continues throughout their careers, with the option to learn a second foreign language presented at the age of 16.
French students learn two to three foreign languages by the time they complete secondary education. They choose their first language at the age of 11 – either German or English – and two years later, students can choose a second foreign language if they wish, with Spanish added to the syllabus.
In Sweden, children start learning English at the age of ten, and study the language throughout their school years. A second foreign language is compulsory until the ninth year of schooling (age 15) and children can choose between German, French, Spanish, and Russian.
Do Children Learn Language in North American Schools?
In the United States, language education is determined by state, with no nationwide legislation. It’s not unusual to find pupils with no foreign language education whatsoever. However, most states offer at least two if not three years of secondary language education, but just as the policy varies, so does the number of languages on offer.
Interestingly, a study in 2006 found that in fact, only about 15-20% of Americans consider themselves bilingual, compared to 56% of Europeans.
As a bilingual country, Canada requires schools to teach both English and French, so whether you’re a French Canadian or English speaking Canadian, you’ll be taught in your native language. All students must take a second language as part of the curriculum in Grades 5 to 8 (ages 10-14).
At What Age Do Children Learn Languages in South America?
Since 1996, it has been law that Brazilians study a foreign language for a total of 8 years, 3 hours per week on average. The most popular second language in Brazil is English, although each community has the freedom to decide which language should be taught.
In Mexico, some primary schools operate half of their lessons in Spanish and the other half in a secondary language decided by the community. This means children from the age of six are taught either English, French, Tzotzil or Tzeltal. By 2018, all primary schools in Mexico will have to teach English as a secondary language.
The number of countries stressing second language in education speaks to the rising trend in globalization. Like Mexico, countries where English is not the first language trend towards requiring second language and offering English. Meanwhile English-speaking countries like the US and England have shied away from obligating schools to teach additional languages.
Studies highlight the connection between educational policy and the proficiency of the population, and countries that have steered away from compulsory language learning have seen their communities become increasingly monolingual. In the spirit of minting global citizens, countries would do well to encourage students to speak multiple languages.