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The Optimal Age for Learning a Second Language

  • Specialists are unanimous in their opinion: exposing a child to two languages from birth is the best way for the child to become bilingual.
  • In fact, this language exposure can even begin during pregnancy! According to a report on early childhood development by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the United States, the capacity to learn a language is optimal from the 34th week of pregnancy until the age of 12 months, during the period when the brain synapses are forming.
  • Specialists agree that there is a decline in the ability to learn a second language after about the age of 6 or 7.
  • Myth: Some people claim that it is better to wait for a child to learn the basics of a language well, before making the child learn another language. This way, we think that the child will be able to "transfer" the knowledge learned to the new language.
    • Reality: Even though the child could be learning a second language well at an early age, by not exposing the child to that language we could be depriving the child of several years of optimal learning.
  • Myth: Early bilingualism delays the language development of a child.
    • Reality: This is a common myth that follows research dating back to the 1920s and 1930s which was later proved wrong. In actuality, if a child has language difficulties or delays in development, those will be observed in both languages. Research indicates that the pace of language acquisition is relatively similar between monolingual and bilingual children. However, don’t forget that the bilingual child is learning two language systems at the same time, with two sets of sounds (e.g., the 36 sounds of French, or the 44 sounds of English), two sets of vocabulary and two grammatical systems. This requires a lot of analysis which may give the impression that the bilingual child is slower. In addition, if one language is more dominant than the other, this may simply just reflect a greater exposure to that language.
 The first words usually spoken at around the age of 12 months are preceded by thousands of moments of non-verbal communication (gestures, smiles) and verbal communication (little noises, listening, vocalizations) between the child and his family circle. (Jean-Adolphe Rondal) 

To find out more…

  • Video about the linguistic genius of babies | Video of Patricia Kuhl, a researcher of international repute who is studying how babies learn language (and what happens in their brains). Literally, babies listen carefully to the sounds around them and "compile statistics" to determine the sounds they need to communicate. This means that the most frequent sounds are selected as being useful, and the less frequent sounds are abandoned. Hence the importance of exposing children to the sounds of French, to support and facilitate their learning of this language. Until the age of seven, children are language geniuses. Subsequently, their ability to learn a second language steadily declines. The video is in English but viewers can activate a French subtitle function.
  • Curve of the Optimal Age for Learning a New Language| Table with comments showing the decline, according to age, of the ability to learn a new language.
  • The Linguistic Bank Account of the Young Bilingual Francophone | Table with comments showing various proportions of exposure to English and French.
  • Grandir en deux langues - in Enfants Québec, April 2011 (available in French only)
  • Guide du développement du langage chez l’enfant en milieu exogame (in French with tips and advice in English for language development in a family where the parents don’t have the same mother tongue). | A practical guide for parents of children from 0 to 7 years old by SOFA (Yukon). Written in simple language, it contains useful information classified by the age of the child, and practical advice in French and English for life in a bilingual family (e.g. what the parents who speak different languages can do to support their child's language development). Interestingly, the author suggests the use of a few American sign language (ASL) gestures for the period from birth to six months, to allow the child to express a few basic concepts (I love you, thirst, hunger, etc.) that both parents can understand.
  • Series of articles on the construction of identity and early bilingualism (in English - Parenthèses magazine)