What is the best age to start learning English?
Did you know that this is one of the most frequently asked questions we hear from our students?
This is closely followed by a different, yet similar question, “is it too late for my child, who is x years old, to start learning English?”
Sometimes, we also get this question from adults. “I am already an adult. Is it even possible for me to start learning English now?”
Don’t worry, in this article we’ll explain what the scientific community has to say about these questions. We hope this article can help you make the best informed decision for you and your children about their English learning journey.
The younger you start, the better isn’t it?
Well… yes and no.
Learning a new language gets more difficult as you get older. Unfortunately, yet not surprisingly, no one knows what the cutoff point is; for example, at what age does learning noun-verb agreement in a different language become more difficult?
Have you ever observed a bilingual nursery or kindergarten?
Or perhaps, your children are in one now?
In Indonesia, usually these bilingual nurseries and kindergartens use Indonesian and English, yet to many of the children, English is actually their third or even fourth language. Some children speak Javanese or Mandarin at home, in addition to Indonesian and English taught in nurseries and kindergartens.
Yet, despite the many inputs of languages at once, these kids seem to pick them up effortlessly!
In fact, Carmen Rampersand, director of a bilingual English-Spanish nursery school in London said, “At this age, children don’t learn a language – they acquire it,”.
Compare this, to, say, the average adult English classes. It seems logical to conclude that as you age, learning a new language becomes more and more of an impossible pursuit!
But is that true?
This often comes as a surprise to many people, but the truth is, different stages of growing up offer different advantages in learning a new language.
As early as infanthood, we have acquired a unique advantage to understand a language!
During infanthood, we actually have very good hearing! We can pick up different sounds easily, which sets us up for easier language acquisition. For example, if during infanthood we are used to listening to our parents or caregivers speak in Mandarin with its unique pronunciation and intonation, we would have an easier time picking up Mandarin as we grow up.
During toddlerhood, we can pick up native accents with astonishing speed and accuracy!
And during adulthood, we have better focus and attention span and of course, most importantly, the skill of literacy, to expand our vocabulary not only in the language we are trying to learn, but even in our native language too!
So, what does research say about learning a new language?
A team of researchers from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Boston College conducted a study to find out the correlation between learning English and age. To date, this is one of the biggest linguistic studies ever conducted, with more than half a million respondents.
The researchers created models that predicted how long it takes to become proficient in a language and the ideal age to begin learning based on people’s grammar scores and information about their English learning. They determined that the ability to acquire a new language, at least grammatically, is at its peak until the age of 18, after which it begins to fall rapidly. However, in order to become entirely proficient, learning should begin before the age of ten.
Language-learning capacity drops around 18 for three reasons: social changes, interference from one’s native language, and continuing brain development. At the age of 18, most children graduate from high school and either begin college or start working. When they do, they may no longer have the time, opportunity, or learning environment to study a second language as they once did.
In addition, after mastering a first language, its rules may interfere with the capacity to acquire a second. For example, in Indonesian, the word formation is noun + adjective/adverb, for example, rumah baru. Whereas in English, it’s the opposite, an adjective or an adverb comes before a noun. Rumah baru, literally translated to house new, is evidently not correct, it should be new house instead. This difference in rules might make older learners confused and therefore take longer for them to fully grasp the concept.
Finally, changes in the brain that occur during the late teens and early twenties may make learning more difficult.
Studies have also concluded that the younger the learner, the easier it is for them to recreate new sounds and learn pronunciation.
Dr Erika Levy, PhD, assistant professor of speech and language pathology at Columbia University says that the earlier you start teaching your kids a second language, the better, ideally starting before the child turns 5 years old. She argues that even in infanthood, babies are keenly aware of the speech sounds in the languages that surround them. At age 3-5 years old, children are able to understand new words in 2 different languages at an incredibly fast rate.
Another study by Harvard University finds that creativity, critical thinking skills, and flexibility of the mind is significantly enhanced if a child learns a second language at a younger age, that is, during the preschool years (age 2-5 years old). This is when the foundation of attitudes, thinking, and learning are laid down.
However, other researchers believe that it is best to start learning a second language at early adolescence, around age 10-13. Proponents of this belief argue that at this age, children can understand the lesson more easily and thus absorb and learn faster. However, children who start learning a second language at this age will not learn the language intrinsically the same way as babies and toddlers do and might have a harder time picking up standard pronunciation.
So what are the steps of language acquisition in children?
You might be surprised to learn that babies and children learn languages in a parallel fashion. That is, they learn a language using the same steps regardless of what language they are learning.
The first sound that a baby makes is the sound of crying, then, around six weeks of age, the baby will start making vowel sounds, something like “ahh” “eee” and “oooh”. At about six months, the baby starts producing vowel-consonant words like “boo”. At this stage, the baby is playing around with the sounds of speech and sorting out the sounds that are important for making words from the ones that aren’t. This is why some researchers believe that children can begin to learn a second language as early as 6 months old.
Somewhere around the age of one or one and a half, the child will begin to utter meaningful words, something like “cookie” or “doggie”. Around age two, the child starts making simple ‘sentences’ like “doggie run”.
They will then start making longer sentences like “big doggie run fast”. By the time the child enters kindergarten, they will have acquired the vast majority of rules and sounds of the language. After this, it’s just a matter of combining the different sentence types in new ways and adding new words to his or her vocabulary.
Therefore, it is easier to learn a language as an infant or a toddler than it is to learn a language later in life. Many linguists argue that the baby’s brain is already programmed to learn a language. This means that it is natural for human beings to talk just like birds to sing.
Researchers believe that there may be a ‘critical period’ lasting roughly between infancy to puberty during which language acquisition process is effortless. According to these researches, changes occur in the brain during puberty, which makes learning a language much harder.
Better late than never
Don’t be afraid if you think it’s already too late for you or your child to learn English. Many people successfully learn and gain native-like fluency well after puberty.
As Antonella Sorace, director of Bilingualism Matters at the University of Edinburgh put it, “not everything goes downhill with age”.
She argues that adults are much better at explicit learning – sitting in a classroom with a teacher explaining the material than children. “Young children are very bad at explicit learning, because they don’t have the cognitive control and the attention and memory capabilities,” Sorace says. “Adults are much better at that. So that can be something that improves with age.”
So, there is no such thing as being too late.
Remember, the best time to start is yesterday, but the next best time to start is now!
Researchers can’t agree on what is the best age to start learning a second language. However, all of them agree that the best time is to start before puberty. However, with hard work, many people are able to gain native-like fluency even though they started learning the language after puberty. So, don’t lose hope if you think you are too late in enrolling your child in an English course. Better late than never!
Do you want your child to speak with confidence and fluency?
So many children in Indonesia lack confidence when they speak English. They are worried about making mistakes and are embarrassed to speak in front of others. This is because they have been taught English the wrong way!
At IELC, we teach English the right way so your child can express themselves with confidence and fluency. Whether it’s online or on campus, we create a positive learning environment where your child will feel warm and welcome, where they can learn and have fun at the same time.
The best English course for kids in Indonesia
With so many courses available, it can be confusing to know which course to choose.
With an average rating of 4.9 out of 5 stars from more than 400 reviewers on Google Review, IELC is the highest ranked best English language course in Indonesia.
We teach English the right way so that your child gains confidence and fluency.
With these skills, they can unlock their potential and fulfil their dreams!
Our experienced teachers will guide your child along every step of the learning process to ensure the best learning outcome.
As Indonesia’s #1 English Campus, we offer great courses for kids, teens, and adults:
- Online courses for kids
- Online courses for teens
- Online courses for adults
- On campus courses for kids
- On campus courses for teens
- On campus courses for adults
- Online and on campus IELTS course
- Online and on campus TOEFL course
Whether it’s online or on campus, we will help your child gain the skills they need for their future. Contact us to start your child’s journey towards confidence and fluency today!
IELC Managing Director