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Why Elementary School is the Best Time to Learn a Second Language

by Spanish Teacher Elizabeth Garcia

Have you ever heard the idea that children learn languages more easily than adults? Or even that adult language-learners who miss the “critical period” of childhood exposure to a second language will likely never become as fluent as those who start learning the language as a child? Recent research reveals that these ideas are quite accurate - and give us a strong mandate to provide young children with as much second-language exposure as possible to maximize their language-learning superpowers.

Cognitive scientists at MIT and Harvard University teamed up to conduct the massive study, titled “A Critical Period for Second Language Acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 Million English Speakers.” They found that children who start learning a second language by age 10 are much more likely to achieve near-native proficiency in the second language’s grammar. It’s important to note that in this context, grammar does not mean identifying nouns and verbs or diagramming sentences - it simply means having an implicit understanding of how the language works and is structured, such that the speaker can produce grammatically correct sentences without having to think about it.

After age 10, the researchers found that language-learning ability slowly declines, and by age 18 most learners grow out of this critical childhood period for developing near-native proficiency in a second language. Of course, it is still possible to learn a second (or even a third, fourth, or fifth!) language as an adult, but most people will find it more difficult than they would have, given exposure to the language as a child.\

One thing that’s still debated among cognitive scientists is why this result shows up. Is there something inherent in children’s brain development that causes them to have more ability to acquire languages? Here, scientists have drawn comparisons to first-language acquisition. In the few rare and tragic cases in which a child was not exposed to any human language from birth through early childhood, those individuals were never able to become fluent speakers even through extensive training as adults. So, perhaps second-language acquisition is similarly dependent on a biological predisposition in our brains that fades as we enter adulthood. On the other hand, some scientists have argued that external factors are to blame: adult brains may have more “interference” from their first languages blocking the development of a second grammatical structure, or simply have too many other pressing concerns that prevent our brains from being able to absorb language effortlessly.

Whatever the reason, the results of this research give us a powerful motivation to support early language learning! At Rossman, all students starting in Junior Kindergarten study Spanish. Because children are “naturals” at acquiring language, we focus on providing comprehensible input that gives their brains the opportunity to absorb language structures through repeatedly hearing, reading, and understanding meaningful messages in Spanish. Time on task is key for acquiring a language, so parents can help by providing children with extra opportunities to read and listen to Spanish at home. Let’s help them use their language superpowers!