The ability to speak a second language can open doors in almost any career. It can also grant access to a whole new world of culture, movies, music, and literature. For these reasons, many parents want their children to learn another language. But when is the best time to start?
When should my child start learning a second language?
While it is never too late to learn a new language, many studies suggest that it is easiest to do so if you begin as a young child. In fact, many linguists believe that there is a “critical period” for language development. According to this theory, to achieve true fluency in a second language, it must be learned alongside the first language during childhood.
There are many reasons for this. Young children can learn a second language in the same way that they learn their native tongue – through immersion and interaction. They have more time than adults to devote to language acquisition, and though we are yet to fully understand why, research shows that their brains are better designed to internalise pronunciation and grammar rules.
There is disagreement as to how long the critical period lasts. Some researchers argue that it ends as early as the age of three, but most draw the line at puberty. However, there is universal agreement that children can benefit greatly from learning a second language from a very young age.
In short, the earlier the better!
What are the best ways for a child to learn a second language?
Exposure and interaction are the key factors for a child learning a second language. That is, they need to hear it, see it, react to it, affect it, and use it. There are a variety of techniques for effectively achieving these goals in both the classroom and at home.
How can I help my child master a second language?
Obviously, enrolling your child in a school that teaches that language will be helpful. Many schools and academies teach second languages in an immersive way, entirely in the target language, and this has been proven to be a successful technique for teaching children. Make sure to choose a school or academy with qualified language teachers who have been trained to implement effective techniques such as Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), Total Physical Response (TPR) teaching, and Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS).
There are many other things you can do beyond this. Here are some tips:
If you can speak the second language:
- Introduce a one parent, one language policy. One surefire way to raise a bilingual child is for each parent to communicate with the child in a different language.
- Make conversation in the second language a part of your daily lives. Whether it’s talking over dinner, reading bedtime stories, or playing games, it’s important to make speaking the second language a normal and regular occurrence.
If you can’t speak the second language:
- Learn with them. Remember that your child will start from a position of having no knowledge of the second language. Why not learn it at the same time, so that you can bond through the language? You can expect to make quicker progress at first, but be prepared to be overtaken!
- Get a babysitter who can speak the target language. Ask him/her to only communicate with your child in that language.
- Join play–groups with children who speak the target language. Kids are great communicators, and they can learn a lot from each other.
- Try online conversation classes. There are many excellent online services for learning or practicing a second language, such as iTalki and Verbling.
Whether you can speak the second language or not:
- Encourage your children to read. Reading reviews and introduces new vocabulary and grammar structures. It’s also something that they can do by themselves, encouraging autonomous development.
- Introduce them to other sources of the language. Watching cartoons and TV shows, playing computer games, and listening to music in the target language can also help them learn on their own.
Whatever age you think is right for your child to learn a second language, doing so is a great decision for their future. Happy learning!