What is the Relationship Between Age and Second Language Acquisition?
written by: Saoirse OMara
• edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch
• updated: 8/2/2012
Have you ever wondered why young children can learn unknown words and phrases so quickly if they hear them somewhere? Do you know the best time to begin teaching a second language to your child?
This article provides answers and explains the link between age and second language acquisition.
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Age and second language acquisition are linked, especially with very young children. The following sections will explain how and why languages are best learned as early as possible.
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Aged 0 – 3
Infants have the ability to understand and produce every sound used in any known language. They have more brain connections and brain cells than any older child or adult. In the first three years, children learn languages best. In this time, their native language is formed. If children have access to more than one language in this period, they often end up with more than one native language.
You can use this natural ability for learning languages by reading foreign books to your child, watching DVDs, or listening to music in foreign languages and speaking more than one language with your child.
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Aged 4 – 7
During the next approximately four years, all brain connections and brain cells that are not used are being degraded. What does that mean for language acquisition?
If a child starts with learning a second language now, he or she still has very good conditions to learn the new language fluently with comparatively little effort. On the other hand, the language(s) with which the child has been in contact so far should be a continuing part of his or her life.
In addition to the above mentioned ways, you can also go to language courses designed for small children. There might be other opportunities, such as bilingual or international kindergartens, in your area too. Children will get in contact with new languages in a comfortable and playful environment, literally learning by playing.
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Aged Older than 7
You might wonder why I do not divide this section into more, smaller sections. The answer is with approximately seven years, our brain has degraded all connections concerning languages it did not need so far. So from this point on, language learning is all about creating new connections.
When most children start learning second languages in school, it is already too late to profit from the children’s natural abilities. Learning languages is harder now as they have to rebuild the necessary brain connections instead of just activating and using them. However, the sooner they begin the better. Even if the great advantage of young children is gone, it will get more difficult the older the child gets.
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Now that we have had a closer look at the connection between age and second language acquisition, what do we learn from it?
The younger children are, the better do they learn languages. When second language acquisition is begun before the age of three or at least before the age of seven, there is a good chance that the child will have more than one native language. However, fluent command of a second language can still be achieved later on, but it gets harder as the child gets older. Adults can still learn a second language and become fluent in it, but it requires more effort.