Teaching Children a Second Language - When Should They Start?
Parents often ask me when their child should begin learning English, or another foreign language. I used to teach English to children between the ages of 3 and 13, and the differences in the way children learn as they grow older are astonishing! As a linguist, I've spent years researching this topic, working in classrooms, and with academics, to understand the best way for children to begin learning a foreign language.
Here's what I've learned.
"early language learning improves concentration, memory, problem solving, and makes the brain function more efficiently"
The benefits are clear: beginning to learn a second language in early childhood doesn't just mean your child will be able to communicate in their second language in future, have stronger job opportunities, and be a global citizen. It's also healthy for the brain: early language learning improves concentration, memory, problem solving, and makes the brain function more efficiently. There's even evidence that the benefits of learning a second language include delaying and preventing neurological diseases, like Parkinson's.
There's also not much downside to starting young: the old theories of 'language confusion' and 'language delay' have been updated in the last 10 years. Thanks to new research, we now know that learning a second language alongside the mother tongue doesn't confuse or delay our children - it actually boosts overall language development. In one study, a group of children who had learned a second language in early childhood performed better in tests of their mother tongue, than children who had not learned a second language early...weird, right? But true! The brain's ability to process languages improves as a whole when a new language is added into the mix.
We know it's beneficial. The question is when to start?
"Starting a new language at school, like in adulthood, is like pushing a big rock up a hill."
Should we wait until they start school? Or should they begin earlier? There is no perfect answer, but, as you'll see, starting to interact with the language before they go to school has some big benefits. If you do wait until they start school, they'll begin learning English in the same way that you as an adult learns. Exercises, tests, and repetition. It works, but slowly, and is more painful! Starting a new language at school, like in adulthood, is like pushing a big rock up a hill.
However, children under the age of 6 learn much faster and more easily than older children. It's amazing that it changes so fast, but from about 6 or 7, children begin to learn like adults, and not as easily as they used to! In linguistic research, this period is called 'the critical period'. The process in the brain of a preschooler when they interact with new sounds, languages, or concepts is different to what is happening in the brain of a primary school child. In fact, it's so different, that we could even use different words: ==children under 6 can 'absorb things', and after 6 they have to actively 'learn things'.== So, why start a second language with your child before the age of 6? The simple answer is that they will begin absorbing the sounds, structures, and words of the second language in a natural way, like how they learn their mother tongue, and not in a 'forced' way, like they have to do at school and like we adults have to do when we try to learn languages. On their first day at school, instead of finding everything strange and difficult, they'll have a framework of sounds and structures that they met and absorbed earlier in their life, and can be more confident, and more engaged, in lessons. And they'll have a better accent than their teacher, too!
In this video, a German 5 year-old shows her memory of words and amazing English accent after a few months playing English learning games:
**What if we're not a bilingual family?**This is a common question! The answer is, it doesn't matter - every family can begin introducing their children to new languages. To introduce a child to English, or another foreign language, you don't need to speak it as parents. Think of yourself more like a supervisor, or a fellow learner: with the right apps, games, and books, you can playfully learn with your child, to help them begin meeting the new sounds and structures of a foreign language. Products like Lingumi make it playful and simple to begin learning English with your child, using interactive games. By starting in the pre-school period, these kinds of products are just the same as playing with a toy, but the learning benefits are amazing to watch for parents, who can take part and play with their child. And as well as learning new words and phrases and developing linguistic abilities, interacting with a foreign language in infancy is one of the best activities a child can do to improve their brain development, concentration, and problem-solving skills.
Want to play and learn English with your child?
So why not try it? You can read more about Lingumi at lingumi.com, or find other amazing products to boost your child's linguistic development by searching on Amazon or Google for apps, games, and toys that help with language development.
About the author:
Toby Mather studied Modern Languages at Oxford University before becoming an English teacher in Primary Schools overseas. He founded Lingumi in 2015, and their app and physical products are now used and loved by thousands of families. Read more at lingumi.com