What Is The Best Age To Learn A Language?
What is the best age to learn a language?
The answer is dead simple. The earlier the better.
There’s something called L1 and L2 acquisition. In other words L1, your first native language, that you learn, and L2, which is related to the other languages you learn. Of course, it’s not always black and white, for example, my own children are bilingual and have been since birth. However, conceptually it’s the same.
L1 doesn’t just mean one language it means the methods children use to acquire language to start communicating, rather than L2 is the process we use to learn other languages. Here’s a major difference.
When you are a baby, you learn to speak by watching the people and the world around you. You watch, try to make sense, and repeats it, and experiment how the world reacts to you. That’s essentially how we acquire language as kids.
What we don’t do is use baby language to explain to us what words mean, like we would when we normally try to learn languages. Major difference.
“Gaga means tree”
It’s called the translation method and it’s how we are used to learning at school.
Why are we talking about this?
We are far more effective at L1 language acquisition so catch kids as they are learning to speak and you’ll find they learn other languages just as effectively. English is no different.
As we grow older and go through education, we need to understand “why”. We want to know how what we are learning fits into the bigger schemes. Why do we say have and not has.
From the age of 12-13 years old, we start to get frustrated with learning if we don’t understand why something happens.
Kids younger than 12 or so, don’t have this problem. They take things at face value. This means they are quicker to absorb and retain new language.
It’s a major difference.
However, if you can train older students to get over the uncomfortable feeling of not understanding why, and just to try and absorb the information as it is, you can get effective results, however, because it’s not natural for them, it won’t be quite the same.
Teaching methods based on the direct method, which essentially is like see/listen and repeat, incorporate this.
One the oldest, the Callan method has students saying;
“No it’s not a book but it’s a pen” within a couple of lessons.
For a new learner of a language, that’s an epic sentence to be able to repeat after an hour of learning. WOW.
It’s likely the learner doesn’t really understand each individual word. They haven’t learned what “it’s” is yet, they don’t know the difference between “A” and “AN”. But they understand the overall meaning of the sentence.
Now, I’m not promoting the direct method. Like other methods, it has some advantages and some disadvantages. But it demonstrates the idea that kids learn because they don’t need to understand why or they don’t need to understand every component and be able to break it down and label each component. They just understand it overall and run with it.
So, kids from the age of 2-3 years old, start to absorb language and can start to learn a second or third language. They are best at learning a language because they are cognitively ready to acquire language and communicate with others in their world.
This goes full steam ahead until their early teens when education starts to take over and they are rightly taught to unpack everything and to understand why.
You can teach an older student, even adults to take learning English at face value, and make them more effective, however, they will never be quite as effective at learning during the time the student is acquiring their first language.
This kind of information is critical to know if you want to teach english abroad as your students will probably vary in age. A little patience with some of the older students goes a long way.