In language acquisition studies, there is this fascinating concept called a “critical period”, a period of time where kids best learn language skills. When they grow out of that “critical period”, learning grammar rules or a new language is difficult or impossible. Is there a cut-off age for learning a foreign language? Five years old? Eight? Eighteen? Science has provided many studies with slightly varying answers.
In an MIT-based research study published in May 2018 in the Cognition journal, it is suggested that children up until the age of ten can best learn new languages to almost native proficiency. The study also suggests that adolescents up until the age of 17 or 18 can competently learn new language grammar structures (one of the most difficult aspects of a language to internalize), but that skill drops sharply after about age 18. Past studies have suggested that the cut-off for native proficiency language learning is closer to age five or six. Despite the ongoing debate, the vast majority of researchers and experts agree on one thing: The earlier kids start being introduced to one or more languages aside from their native language, the better!
There is a misconception that teaching elementary school age children and younger a second language will confuse them, or stunt their progress in their native language. The good news is that these ideas have been found time and time again to be simply untrue. In fact, second language learning has an immensely positive impact on children’s mental and emotional growth.
Language learning does amazing things to the human brain. When people are young, there are trillions of neural connections or pathways in our brains. As we grow, we use some of those connections and don’t use others. The ones we don’t use are “pruned” by our brains to make way for more important and complicated pathways. Pruning is a natural process our brain uses throughout our lives to prioritize information and skills that we use often. Studies have shown that the more experiences and information we are exposed to as children, the more pathways are allowed to grow and strengthen instead of being pruned. This could mean that we process new information quickly and more accurately later in adulthood, along with better recall of old information.
Learning a new language especially builds and sustains neural pathways. Essentially, it gives our brains an incredible workout. Even studies on language learning among the elderly have shown that their brains are peculiarly stimulated by new language concepts. Imagine what this does for young children, whose brains are so eager to soak in new information! Not only can children in the elementary school age range more easily attain native proficiency in a second language, they can use those same neural pathways to easily learn more languages, process patterns in math and music, and cultivate empathy.
Language is a practical skill too, of course. The value of language skills in the real world is immeasurable in that it opens opportunities for studying, living, working, and communicating among people of different cultures. Foreign language learners enjoy higher test scores on average and a leg-up on job hunts.
If you went to public school, you likely didn’t experience any foreign language education until you were in junior high or high school. Private schools enjoy high enrollment of young children. Exactly 449,819 kindergarteners were enrolled in private schools during the 2011-2012 school year, more than any other grade level. This means they have a distinct responsibility to expose these children to language education at their peak potential.
As a private school for younger children, Conchita Espinosa Academy is very proud of our Spanish language program that includes elementary students. Part of our mission as a community is to instill an appreciation for, and general mastery of, foreign language skills across age levels. Our Spanish program starts out as early as kindergarten-age children, giving them a comfortable base to work off of as they have intensified Spanish classes in subsequent grades. We believe having language as a key part of our sets our students up for success. Science agrees, and we hope you will too.