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What's the Best Age to Learn a Foreign Language?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on September 21, 2021

Our understanding of language is always growing. There are myths that children are better at learning foreign languages, but people of any age can learn a second language.

Language Development

Language is ingrained in us even before birth. Babies are born listening to and learning language around them. Studies show that babies may begin learning a native language while still in the womb. Children learn by listening to language and copying what they hear.‌

Children between the ages of 1 and 3 are most likely to learn a second language with ease. At these ages, they are already mastering one native language. Their brains are primed for absorbing words and learning the flow of conversation. Outside of that age group, there is no single best age to learn a language.‌‌

In the early stages of childhood, language learning is largely unstructured. Children have a focus on effectively communicating with their parents and others around them. Because of this, many people think that children learn a language easier than adults. But that isn’t true. Learning a native language is different because it is a fully immersive experience. Children learn through trial and error, making progress each day.‌

Young children who learn more than one language often have parents who speak multiple languages. They grow up learning more than one language naturally. Without natural exposure, a foreign language is more difficult to learn.‌

Still, language is a skill we continue learning no matter our age. One study showed that mastering a native language can take up to 30 years. We have to evolve with our language as it grows and changes over time.

Overcoming Language Learning Challenges

Get out of your head. If you want to learn a foreign language, stop making excuses for yourself. You may think learning a foreign language is too hard or that you don’t have time. One reason adults perceive it is more difficult to learn a second language is that we lose the desire. Children are sponges. They ask questions and want to figure out the world around them. As we grow up, we lose some of that drive to learn. ‌

Get comfortable making mistakes. Adults often hesitate because they don’t want to fumble through the process of making mistakes in order to learn. No one expects you to do everything perfectly the first time. In addition to learning the words of another language, you also have to learn the pronunciation. Mastering the unique letter sounds of a language takes time and practice. ‌

Find a structure. You learn best when you find a method that works for you. Writing down words may help you remember them. Other people learn by listening to words spoken out loud. No matter how you learn best, find a class or lesson that fits your unique needs. ‌

Commit the time. You won’t learn a new language overnight. Native-level fluency takes time to master. It may take months or years to master a language. Still, you don’t have to commit a lot of time each day. Consistency and quality of work are more important than how long you spend studying. ‌

Get real-life practice. Listening to a foreign language, writing down the words, and speaking out loud are great practice. To truly master a foreign language at any age, you have to practice with a native speaker. Someone who speaks the language fluently can help you correct mistakes. 

Immersing yourself in a foreign language makes learning faster. Full immersion offers a natural setting for learning a second language. You learn continuously, just like you did as a child.‌

Set a goal. You’re more likely to learn a foreign language if you know what you want to achieve. Don’t get tricked into the trap of fluency. You may get discouraged if learning takes longer than you expect. Instead, set goals like:

  • Practicing 30 minutes every day
  • Conversing with a native speaker once a week‌
  • Learning 100 new words per month

Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language

Brain boost. Knowing languages offers some flexibility in thinking. Your brain becomes used to switching between more than one language, allowing you to navigate your thoughts easier. You also improve your memory and ability to multitask.‌

Cognitive impairment. People who are bilingual are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. According to one study, people who speak only one language experience cognitive impairments up to 4.5 years sooner than people who are bilingual.

WebMD Feature

Sources

SOURCES:

ACTFL: “Benefits of Language Learning.”

Journal of Cognition: “A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers.”

Journal Of Humanities And Social Science: “Children First Language Acquisition At Age 1-3 Years Old In Balata.” 

Linguistic Society of America: ”FAQ: Language Acquisition.”

The Modern Language Journal: “The Optimal Age to Learn a Foreign Language.”

University of the Potomac: “9 Benefits of Learning a Second Language.”

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