Are young children the best language learners?

With the world more connected than ever before, there’s an increased need for people to speak modern foreign languages. This much is evident in the greater demand for professional interpreting and translation services than there was a few short decades ago.

For this reason, many people are studying French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese and all other manner of modern foreign languages at school, college and university in a bid to hone their linguistic expertise to become a bonafide citizen of the world. Many more are recognising this fact later in life and boosting their skillset by taking night classes or completing audio courses in the car to and from work.

However, is it best to be learning languages in the very first few years of life? What makes young children such great language learners?

There is no simple answer to this question as there are a number of factors that come into play, such as conscious and subconscious learning, and a child’s unique development.

One of the most pertinent points to note is that young children are sponges when it comes to learning pretty much everything in life, including languages. They do not question what they are learning in the same way that older children and adults do and there is arguably no such thing as a concept being difficult to grasp, as they simply have a go at everything. It could be said that toddlers have to learn a fear of failure or apathy.

While adults have to make an effort to learn a new skill, infants boast innate learning strategies that can be used later in life, which cannot be developed in the same way once a child has surpassed a threshold of self-conscience. Past a certain age, individuals will need to learn languages using grammar charts and dictionaries, whereas very young children can absorb languages more passively using activities and games in a way that is arguably not possible further down the line.

The British Council explains how youngsters are “self-motivated to pick up language without conscious learning, unlike adolescents and adults”, as they do not seek to question rules; rather, they work them out for themselves and seek to imitate wherever possible.

It is also worth mentioning that, while it of course depends hugely on the development of each individual child, generally if a toddler picks up a second language while they are younger, this improves the ease with which they will be able to learn a third, fourth or so on when they are even older, as they have developed innate language-learning strategies specifically in their earlier years.

In terms of the best age for a youngster to start honing their linguistic abilities, experts told the South China Morning Post that it is in fact never too early to learn a second language, as doing so can help to improve their overall cognitive skills when they are older.

US brain development expert Andrew Meltzoff explained how children learn more in the first six years of their life than they do during any other period of the same length throughout their lives. “Research tells us that we have a sensitive period between birth and six years of age, when language is learned effortlessly,” he explained.

Studies cited by Mr Meltzoff and colleague Patricia Kuhl – co-directors of the Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington – looked at the neurons in six to eight-month-old youngsters’ brains while they were listening to speech and non-speech signals.

By using magneto-encephalography, scientists discovered that the infants mapped the sounds they heard from their mother talking rather like a computer might organise data or statistics. The young participants were also shown to notably engage with parentese, as they mapped proper communication in favour of nonsensical baby talk.

The study also revealed improved reading and literacy skills among bilingual youngsters a few years down the line, over those who had not learnt another language in their infancy.

Ms Kuhl highlighted how “everything we know suggests that bilingualism is not only good for the brain, but also good for society”, as it opens up people’s minds to other cultures and perspectives.

Only recently, the Edinburgh Evening News revealed that pupils as young as three years old are being taught modern languages in the city’s council nurseries.

The debate will continue over the best age at which to learn languages, but science would suggest that, typically, young brains are perfectly primed for this purpose. Of course, it will depend from child to child, but the evidence would suggest there is certainly nothing wrong with bringing up an infant in bilingual surroundings – in fact, quite the opposite could be true.

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