The question of which age is most suitable for learning a foreign language has been studied for decades. It has become clear that it is most beneficial for children if they have the opportunity to hear their future languages simultaneously from an early age. But what if this is not possible and they come into contact with the languages one after the other?
Until the 70s, not only did the general public focus on age as the single most important component of language learning success, but a great deal of research was also aimed at finding the critical age for language acquisition; the exact separation between the age at which you can learn a foreign language to a native level, and the age at which you can’t. This made people think that the key factor in language learning was age, and made the “critical age” for language acquisition seem like a tragic time for those who were not yet multilingual, since there was less focus on other language learning factors. This is also the basis of the definition of multilinguals, which differentiates between those who came into contact with their second or additional languages before and after this “critical age”.
When is someone considered a “late bilingual”?
Research only changed long after the idea of the “critical age” began to diminish in importance (Panfield and Roberts, 1959) and experts began to discuss a “sensitive period” (Lenneberg, 1977), but an increasing number of researchers claimed the most productive period for language learning ended during adolescence.
After that, this picture became much more nuanced, and it became more and more obvious that age influences language learning, but not as decisively as previously though. It is not even certain that language learning is specifically linked to a biological change, such as adolescence. It is quite certain that it is most favourable in terms of multilingualism if the child learns all their languages from birth, and that this also affects the location of their language centre in the brain. But this does not mean that all is lost if the child comes into contact with the second or additional languages one after the other, even if this occurs after the “sensitive period”.
What is the key to success?
Language talent? The lack of this can be used as an excuse if learning is difficult, or someone who learns foreign languages quickly can brag about it. But what does it mean to be gifted at language learning? Caroll draws attention to 4 components. First of all, good hearing – meaning whether we can clearly recognize speech sounds and how accurately we can imitate them. The second factor is grammatical sensitivity, i.e. the ability to recognise the elements of the grammatical system, such as how clearly we see, for example, parts of speech, verbs or nouns. The third is having a good memory, since words must be learned and memorised. And the fourth is the ability to learn – knowing and using learning strategies.
These skills can all be developed, since the more a child has them, the easier it will be for them to learn their second language.
The older a person is when they learn a foreign language, the more they can rely on the skills acquired in their mother tongue, and the more a person can recognise and use Caroll’s four components in their mother tongue, the higher a language level they can reach in their second language, even after adolescence. In fact, adult learners can successfully compete with small children, even if both are learning their second language through immersion. The exception would be if the small children were already multilingual, since they would be more trained in these skills, and that’s why multilingual people learn additional languages more easily even after adolescence. The same applies to adult multilinguals, as knowledge of several languages makes people more receptive to learning another one.
However, other factors also play an important role. Much depends, for example, on the student’s motivation, and the younger they are, the stronger this is. Motivation is worth a separate article, so it will be discussed in more detail in my next article.
However, it is also important to note which language a pre-adolescent wants to learn as a second or third language. If its writing system, for example, is very different, that can also cause extra difficulty, since a language learner who can already read an alphabet has an advantage, although this causes difficulty in terms of accent. This is true even in the case of Latin letters, since one letter can cover multiple sounds and during self-study, one’s own pronunciation can be involuntarily fixed. Another question is how important we consider this to be. Many dialects within a language also differ from the rules of standard pronunciation, and their speakers perceive the strengths of foreign accents differently.
What is very important is to keep in mind not those examples of people who could not cope with a new language after adolescence, but those who did successfully learn a second or additional languages at a level similar to their mother tongue. There are many more than we think. What you definitely cannot do without is the use of language and the frequency of conversation. That’s why it’s worth taking every opportunity to talk, preferably armed with the unspoiled confidence and attention of a small child.