Your browser version is outdated. We recommend that you update your browser to the latest version.

How Early can my Child Start Learning a New Language?

Posted 4/5/2019

 

"Should I wait until my child is in school for them to begin learning a second language?"

"If I introduce a second language very young, will my child get confused?"

"Am I pushing too much on my child to teach a second language early on?"


Perhaps you’ve found yourself asking these questions or something similar. When you boil them all down, they are all asking essentially the same question,

“How early can my child start learning a new language?”

So how early should you start and is there such a thing as too early?

It wasn’t so long ago that the general consensus was that parents should allow their child to first get a good grasp on their mother tongue before teaching a second language. However, over that past couple of decades, study after study has found that this belief is entirely wrong.

 

Beginning Young is Beneficial

Not only have studies found that it isn’t harmful to start teaching children during infancy, but that there are numerous benefits. I’m not going to go into all the benefits in this article as I’ve written about them in previous posts, like this one and this one

The minds of infants and toddlers are different than yours and mine. Their ability to learn new things is far greater than ours. Not only can they learn a new language when they are infants and toddlers, but they can learn it better than later in life.


The First Few Years Are Critical.

During the first six months of life, even though your child is not able to speak, they are hearing sounds and starting to make sounds. When they hear certain sounds being spoken around them, they can learn those sounds. This continues for the first few years.

However, when infants and toddlers don’t hear certain sounds, they will struggle later to learn them, if they can learn them at all. This is why people who grow up only speaking Chinese struggle to pronounce the western “r” sound and why people who only speak English with the American “r” sound struggle to roll their r’s when speaking Spanish or Italian.

People who first mastered their native language before beginning to learn another can become fluent in that second language, but they usually won’t master all the nuances of that language’s sounds to sound native. So, the earlier you introduce a child to a second language the better they can speak the sounds of that language and can actually sound like a native speaker. They also tend to learn the second language more easily in those first few years.

 

Will It Hurt My Child’s Ability to Learn Their Primary Language?

The quick answer is, no. According to Susan S. Lang of Cornell University,

“Learning a second language does not cause language confusion, language delay or cognitive deficit, which have been concerns in the past. In fact, according to studies at the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab (CLAL), children who learn a second language can maintain attention despite outside stimuli better than children who know only one language.”

I found this fascinating. Once again, not only were our initial assumptions not correct, but the opposite was true. Children who begin learning a second language early are better able to focus on learning and other tasks.

 

But My Child Keeps Mixing Up Languages

It is true that young children learning multiple languages at the same time will sometimes switch between languages, even in mid-sentence. I see this with my 2-year-old boy, who is learning Spanish as a second language. We’ll be counting to ten, and he’ll switch between English and Spanish saying the numbers. His favorite is 8, “ocho!”

According to Ana Paula G. Mumy, a trilingual speech pathologist,

“Code switching, or the alternating between two languages, is a normal part of communication in bilingual individuals, and it does not promote or show signs of confusion.  It’s perfectly acceptable and appropriate for bilinguals.”

 

Teach Inside and Outside of a Class

One final note. It is best for the child’s learning when the second language is spoken conversationally in social situations, particularly with family. Attending a class to learn a language is great, but don’t let the learning stop there. 

If you or some family members speak that second language, be sure to use that language around your child. Even if you are monolingual, you can learn in your child’s class and use what you learn around the child at home.

 

The Time is Now

Your child is never too young to begin teaching them a second language. In the first few months, it may simply be using the language around them. As they start speaking, you can sign up for a class. The benefits of starting when your child is very young are enormous. You don’t have to wait for them to enter school. In fact, it’s best if you don’t.

 

- Kurt Steinbrueck
Kurt is a parent of 2 bilingual children and is married to a 3rd grade teacher.

 

- Photos by the very talented Jess Laurel Photography