• Question: What age is the optimum for learning a new language?

    Asked by tyrrellt to Michael, Joe, Anna on 10 Apr 2015.
    • Photo: Joseph Devlin

      Joseph Devlin answered on 10 Apr 2015:

      As early as possible! From birth is probably optimal but before puberty is still pretty darn good. Having said that, there is no reason you can’t learn it later. It may be more difficult and your accent may suffer to some extent, but with sufficient motivation and practice you should do fine. I learned British English as an adult (I’m American) and it’s going pretty well so far…

    • Photo: Anna Simmonds

      Anna Simmonds answered on 13 Apr 2015:

      I agree with Joe – as early as possible, but that can mean different things to different people. Growing up speaking more than one language is a fantastic way to master multiple languages, but not everybody has that opportunity and they can still go on to become successful language learners. If you want to start learning a new language right now, then today is as early as possible, regardless of age.

      Some aspects of language could be considered easier to learn than others, for example an older language learner could become proficient in reading at a native level. It could even be argued that an older learner would be better at language learning than a young child, because they already know one language and can use their knowledge about language and learning to help. Increased motivation can also help improve language learning ability. Speaking a foreign language can be more of a challenge, and later learners rarely master a native-like accent, but I’m working on ways to help with that!

    • Photo: Michael Thomas

      Michael Thomas answered on 13 Apr 2015:

      From the brain’s point of view, a language isn’t a single thing. It’s a set of different tasks: recognising the sounds that make up words from the auditory input, recognising the individual words, retrieving their meaning, constructing an understanding of a sentence from a sequence of words, integrating these into an understanding of the current discourse using background knowledge; and the opposite to produce language, starting with what you want to say and ending up with the motor movements of your lips and tongue and jaw. As we get older, the ‘plasticity’ of the brain gradually reduces with respect to our ability to learn these different tasks. It reduces earliest with our ability to perceive and fluidly produce speech sounds. There is a later and less reduction in our ability to understand and produce grammar, and perhaps no loss of ability to learn the meanings of new words (called ‘semantics’). So, the main thing holding us back when we try to learn languages as adults is dealing with the sounds of the new language (called the ‘phonology’).

      When is the optimal age to learn a second language? If a child is exposed to a bilingual language environment from birth, they will learn both languages readily. There is no sudden cut-off if when a second language can be learned, but the ultimate proficiency achievable, particularly in the phonology, will gradually decline after about six to seven years of age (so you will speak the new language with an ‘accent’). Worth remembering, of course, that this is for the ‘average’ person. There will be individuals who find learning languages easier (they have a ‘facility’, perhaps particularly good phonological skills) and may learn to be native-like speakers starting only from their late teens; and there will be others who do not have this ‘facility’ find and learning multiple languages hard.

      There are other interesting questions in the study of bilingualism at the moment. Does bilingualism do special things for your brain outside of language (does it make you cleverer? more attentive? does it protect against the effects of ageing?). My guess is not, but there’s plenty of research being published right now arguing for these kinds of benefits.

      If a child is struggling with their language development, should they focus on just one language and avoid trying to be bilingual? The answer is, probably no: many developmental language impairments stem from problems in phonology, and these problems will surface in both languages. Focusing on one will not particularly help (i.e., it’s a wrong metaphor to think in terms of a container with a fixed capacity). And if a child is trying to learn two languages because his or her parents speak those two languages, then a language in effect provides access to a social network of support – the kind of support a child needs if they are struggling will some aspect of their development.