Popular belief holds that the best age to start learning a foreign language is as young as possible. Sounds horrible, right? Since you’re not 3-years-old anymore, you already “missed your chance”. Is that true, though? I’m asking because it’s not the only opinion. Most people think that the older you are, the worse language learner you become. However, such a phrase distorts the real picture.
Let’s take a closer look at this popular belief.
Starting as a child
Emma is a 4-year-old girl. Like most children of her age, she has already developed 50% of her learning ability. So, it’s not impossible for her to start learning a foreign language. And she proves it, learning French and English, her native language, at the same time. She uses words from both languages simultaneously and that’s not bad. On the contrary, switching between two or more languages is beneficial. It boosts creativity, reasoning and other cognitive skills.
It doesn’t mean the child can’t distinguish between the two languages. Various studies show that bilingual children can reach native-like fluency in both of these languages if they’re starting early. They keep the sounds of both languages. Adults, on the other hand, have already “forgotten” all the sounds they don’t use in their native language. Which means that it’s much more difficult for an adult to sound like a native speaker.
The question remains, though. Is Emma a better language learner than you? And if so, why? One thing is certain. She has a greater capacity to soak up information. Adult brains are different from children’s and don’t work like sponges. Therefore, children are efficient language learners without realising it. Adults, on the other hand, have other strengths. Let’s compare them.
Starting as an adult
Toddlers have certain cognitive limitations and lack experience. Unlike children, teenagers and adults are better conscious learners. You can easily wrap your mind around the rules of the language. You notice certain structures even if you aren’t learning grammar directly. Therefore, adults understand languages much better and learn them much faster. While small children easily remember words, they are horrible at grammar. It takes them many years to reach fluency. Adults, on the other hand, can reach a conversational level of proficiency in just a month.
Results of multiple other studies agree that the time of starting a language course matters. After a while, children who start learning at the age of 11 perform better than those who start at the age of 8. This is also true for older teenagers and young adults. So, you don’t have to be a toddler to start learning another language. If you’ve got motivation, you are fully able to reach great results. You can show those youngsters how learning a language should look like.
So, what’s the best age to start learning a foreign language?
There’s no single answer. Starting as a young child, it would be very hard not to end up speaking the language. However, it doesn’t mean that there’s less chance for you if you missed the opportunity. On the contrary, adults are the most efficient language learners. You just need some motivation and a source to learn from. In short:
- f you’re and adult, it isn’t too late, nor too early. 15-40 is the best age to start learning a foreign language. With 15 being the optimum, and 40 being slightly less so.
- If you’re older than 40, you can still do it quite effectively. I’ve been learning Swedish together with a 60-year-old, and I couldn’t say he was wasting his time. However, you should start as soon as possible. Old age will affect your cognitive abilities to an extent. Also, the longer you live with one language, the harder it gets to learn new sounds and grammar. Luckily, foreign languages benefit your brain!
- Thinking whether to start teaching your 3-year-old a foreign language? Please do! They will become bilinguals and get other cognitive benefits that will be very useful in the future. And don’t worry if they mix the languages. There’s more to worry about if they don’t.