When is the best time to learn a second or third language?
The earlier the better, according to research. During the sensitive period for language—from birth to about age six—children learn the primary language spoken at home and school at a rapid pace. They also have a remarkable ability to learn and even fluently speak other languages.
Over the past year, articles like Why Bilinguals Are Smarter and Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language in the New York Times have examined new research on the cognitive benefits of learning foreign languages early. It turns out, they say, that learning other languages improves not only linguistic skills but also cognitive abilities like executive functioning. [See more links to resources below.]
Prime times for language acquisition
From birth to age 6, the “absorbent mind” soaks up information like a sponge. The child uses all five senses to absorb and understand information about the surrounding environment at home and in school.
Within this stage, the period from age 1.5 to 3 or 4 is marked by a “language explosion” as the child rapidly expands vocabulary and develops more sophisticated use of language. It is also a prime time to learn another language.
Spanish for toddlers, preschool and kindergarten
At Inly School, world language instruction begins in Toddler House. Spanish classes are integrated into the curriculum in the Toddler, Bridging, Preschool and Kindergarten classes, and in Lower Elementary (grades 1 – 3), Upper Elementary (grades 4 – 6) and Middle School (grades 7 – 8). Mandarin Chinese is taught in Full-Day Kindergarten and in the After-School Program.
Developing an ear and getting a head start
“Starting to learn a second language early on gives children a huge head start,” says Lynda Jackson, Director of World Languages at Inly. “Children are able to pick it up quickly and with enthusiasm. They are not inhibited and are willing to speak it without fear. It provides them with a better ear for the language. They pick up the sounds and can duplicate them naturally, and the younger they start the more likely they will develop a native-like accent.
“Also, all the basic vocabulary they learn early on gives them a leg up as they enter the upper grades. They will be better prepared to take advanced classes in middle school and high school.”
Montessori philosophy and the Inly language program
“World languages have always been part of our curriculum, at all levels,” explains Julie Kelly-Detwiler, Inly Curriculum Director. “It’s part of our Montessori philosophy to teach children when they’re developmentally ready and to take full advantage of these ‘sensitive periods’ of intellectual development. We teach material when children are most receptive to learning it.”
Research supporting PreK-12 foreign language instruction
The ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) has a whole section of its website arguing for an earlier start to language instruction—and it has the research to back it up. Here are some excerpts from its Q & A section:
[Link]: What does research show about the cognitive and academic benefits of early language learning?
“Every piece of research in the field points to the benefits of starting a second language as early as three years of age. The other key to becoming proficient in another language is a long, continuous contact with the language.”
“It is critical that foreign language instruction be available to all students throughout their PK-12 academic experience. Knowing other languages and understanding other cultures is a 21st Century skill set for American students as they prepare to live and work in a global society….”
“Additionally, foreign language learning is much more a cognitive problem solving activity than a linguistic activity, overall. Studies have shown repeatedly that foreign language learning increases critical thinking skills, creativity, and flexibility of mind in young children….This relationship between foreign language study and increased mathematical skill development, particularly in the area of problem solving, points once again to the fact that second language learning is more of a cognitive than linguistic activity.”