When should children start learning languages?

Is there a ‘perfect’ age to start learning a language? Is ‘the earlier the better’ always true, or do teenagers have an advantage over younger children? This has been studied vigorously since the beginning of language teaching itself, and we still have no definitive answers; however, there are differences between younger and older children which we can keep in mind when helping our children acquire a second language.

There are many advantages to learning a language from a young age, especially when starting between the ages of six and nine. At this age, children tend to be less embarrassed about making mistakes, and are happier to experiment with language; this is because they are still experimenting with their own language, and so mistakes aren’t that scary. 

One disadvantage of learning from this early age is that our ability to analyse, judge and manipulate language is a lot lower, due in part to the fact that we have a lot less experience of the world to make connections with. Instead of focussing on grammar instruction, which requires an analytical approach, children at this age benefit by being taught language in ‘chunks’, where they can learn the meaning and use of a whole phrase. They also need to have all of their senses engaged, allowing them to learn intuitively and experiment in lots of different ways.

There are also benefits to learning a language in your teens. Teenagers are able to be analytical in their approach, using their knowledge of their own language to make connections with the second language. This makes it the perfect time to introduce more in-depth grammar instruction, exercises to increase self-awareness, and a focus on study skills such as time-management and note-taking. However, at this later stage of development, improving pronunciation can be more challenging than it is for young children.

When helping your child with their language studies, talking their age into account is extremely important. Under 10s require lots of variety, such as songs, videos, games, and story books. They find it difficult to react to being corrected, and quickly forget corrections, so rather than telling them what they’ve done wrong, ‘recasting’ (repeating their sentence, but without the mistake) is much more useful – if the correct form is repeated, young students will internalise it and start using it without being prompted.

With teens, encouraging self-awareness is crucial: if they’re having problems in writing, why? What can they do to improve? What do successful writers do – Can they use any of the same techniques? This analysis is essential not only for learning a language, but for every area of their lives, especially if they are close to taking important exams. Connections are also vital; the more connections students can make, the more likely they are to understand difficult concepts and remember them long-term. Encourage your children to make mind maps when they are reviewing classwork, and add to it over the term so that more and more connections are made.

At the British Council, grammar and formal language structures are not introduced into children’s English courses until they are around 10, reflecting the evidence about the development of their skills; before this, language is taught in ‘chunks’, and always in context. With teenagers, we introduce study skills and analysis, both of language and of their own strengths and weaknesses, with the long-term goal of making them more effective learners in all subjects, not only English.