Many parents are uncertain about the best time to begin second language studies. There is often a fear that it might be too late to begin past a certain age. While it is true that it is generally better to start younger, children, or even adults, can be successful starting language studies at any age. The key is understanding how this type of learning takes place.
It is true that there is an optimum window for learning language naturally. Children learn language so quickly from birth to age two or three! The incredible leap in vocabulary and the grasp of basic grammatical concepts during this period is mind-boggling. These rapid gains in understanding can never be repeated at that rate or intensity. A two year old child cannot necessarily express clearly all that he or she has learned, but what happens in these first two years is nothing short of amazing.
It is important to note that the rate of language acquisition slows considerably after this initial rush. Rare studies of feral children have made this clear. Feral children are those who have spent part of their developmental years away from the influence of adults. Tests on these children indicate that if a child has not mastered the basics of language by the age of twelve, it is impossible to go back and recover them. The window is closed. Such children are never able to learn to speak like a normal teenager or adult.
These findings shed suspicion on claims that certain language learning programs can teach a second language “naturally,” that is, in the same way that language is acquired by the infant, through exposure and immersion. It takes more than this. Older children are just not able to learn in the seemingly effortless style of a toddler.
This doesn’t mean that it is impossible for older children or adults to learn a language! It just means that language learning after age 2 or 3 needs to be approached like any other kind of learning, with patience, explanation, and lots of practice.
Unfortunately for those seeking a shortcut, second language learning must be approached in the same way as learning the times tables, or the capital cities of Europe, through instruction, memorization, drill, and testing. While this sounds very dry and boring, it certainly doesn’t need to be!
Second language learning is a subject you can have fun with. Number drill can be disguised in game playing. Vocabulary can be rehearsed through a drawing game like Pictionary, or an acting game like Charades. Listening to music and singing songs are enjoyable ways to gain exposure to new words and sounds. Explanation, regular use, and repetition are the key to second language learning. These can take place at any age.