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Teaching Young Children a Second Language

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Old Thoughts on Teaching a Second Language

For many years, people thought that young children couldn’t learn a second language, or that learning and using two languages at the same time would confuse a child and hinder their overall ability to learn. 

However, studies have shown that the best time for a child to learn another language is in the first three to four years of life.

This is good news because many people are realizing how important bilingualism can be in our global interactions. 

How do Young Children Learn Language?

Babies are natural learners with 50 percent of their ability to learn developed in the first years of life. In terms of language, by the time a baby is 6 months of age, he will be using 70 sounds that make up all the languages in the world.

Over time, he will pick up the language sounds he needs from the people around him, and disregard the other sounds and the ability to speak in languages he or she does not hear. 

Ronald Kotulak, author of Inside the Brain, says it would be a waste not to use a child’s natural ability to learn during his or her most vital years. Language skills develop rapidly during the first two to three years and kids this age “quickly absorb whatever they hear…[and] can learn to understand new words in two different languages at an incredibly fast rate.” 

“Children growing up in a well-rounded environment learn to speak at least 2,000 basic words by the time they are four years old,” he said 

The Case for Teaching Second Languages Early

“The earlier you introduce a second language, the easier it will be for your child to pick up its unique sounds. The ability to hear different phonetic pronunciations is sharpest before age 3, and we lose the capacity to hear and produce certain sounds if we aren’t exposed to them early on, according to François Thibaut, director of the Language Workshop for Children in New York City.” 

Unfortunately, second language teaching in most American schools doesn’t begin until high school. Harry Chugani, a Detroit pediatric neurologist, says that waiting until high school to teach foreign languages fails to take advantage of a child’s optimum learning period. 

Learning languages early has other advantages for your child. Children who are exposed to second languages learn about other cultures.

In addition, children who are bilingual tend to be more creative thinkers than those who speak one language. According to, “…young children who are simultaneously exposed to more than one language…have greater neural activity and denser tissue in the areas of the brain related to memory, attention, and language than monolingual learners. These indicators are associated with long-term positive cognitive outcomes for children…”

So not only is your preschooler more capable of learning a second language easily, there are other long-term benefits to early second language learning.

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