Does the age I introduce a language to a child determine how well they learn it?

Languages can be learned at any age: from a nanny, on an exchange in undergrad, after a work promotion to an international office, in a seniors activity class. Caregivers and educators can feel pressure to introduce a second language from a very young age. We all know how hard it can feel to master a new language as an adult.

However, older children and adults can reach functional language skill, and even go on to reach native-like proficiency. There is the misconception that learning a second language has a hard and fixed ‘critical period’, a time in life when it can be learned perfectly. Some aspects of language may become harder (but not impossible) to master later in life, like phonology or the sounds of a language. This can be heard by an accent in the second language. Other aspects of language can be learned just as well throughout life, like vocabulary.

On the other hand, babies that have heard another language on TV from early on may not reach functional language skill. Learning a second language requires having both enough exposure to the language and good quality of exposure, such as interactions with others.

Thinking that a child must absolutely learn a second language by a certain age can put pressure both on caregivers and children. For example, if parents feel comfortable communicating in their native language, it makes more sense to use that language at home and wait for the child to go to school to learn languages spoken outside of home. There is more to turning on the switch for second language learning than age!

Join us next time when we explore how children can use the rhythm of language to help them learn vocabulary.

The scientific sources for our comic:

D Perani, E Paulesu, N S Galles, E Dupoux, S Dehaene, V Bettinardi, S F Cappa, F Fazio, J Mehler, The bilingual brain. Proficiency and age of acquisition of the second language., Brain, Volume 121, Issue 10, Oct 1998, Pages 1841–1852,