I was recently talking to somebody of Hispanic descent who wasn’t taught Spanish at home, but learned it later on in life. She vowed she wouldn’t follow her parents’ footsteps, but ended up doing exactly the same thing with her kids who are now elementary school-aged. “And, now it’s too late!” she lamented. I immediately reassured her that it’s never too late – that’s just a common myth. It is, however, definitely much easier the younger they are.
If you’re raising bilingual children, you’ve probably heard of the ‘critical period’ or ‘language learning window’, but what exactly does all this mean?
There is significant disagreement among language experts as to how long this period lasts and whether the ‘window’ actually closes – if at all.
“We think of a window closing and the opportunity going away forever. I don’t think that is an accurate perspective,” said Barbara Zurer Pearson, one of our own Ask an Expert contributors. “Learning a second language is easier for children under 10, and even easier for children under 5, compared to the much greater effort it takes adults.”
Many experts do agree that there seems to be an ‘optimal’ time period for learning a second language: from birth to three years. In other words, right along the period when a child is learning the first language. The time when his mind is still open and flexible. If you’ve been following us for a while, you know this describes the learning scenario of parents raising their children bilingual by using the OPOL method – which means the kids are exposed to two languages at the same time and hopefully with the same frequency and intensity.
After that, the second best time for learning a second (or third and even a fourth) language appears to be when they are between two and seven years old. (This is one of the reasons why we should all push for public schools to start foreign language education as soon as our kids enter through their doors – instead of when they get to high school.)
If your child is older than seven and you’ve been thinking about raising him bilingual, don’t think all is lost. A third period for learning a second language in childhood is before puberty, from about 10 to 13 years of age.
The main thing to remember is that it is never too late. If this is something you’ve been wanting to do, but have said to yourself that the time has passed, think again. Keep in mind, though, that it will take a lot of work from all the parts involved to change your behavior. Be consistent, but also flexible.
“You might want to call children’s early facility an opportunity we want to take advantage of. But the window is never nailed shut,” reassured Zurer Pearson. “Given the right environment and motivation, one can learn another language at any age.”
I started learning Spanish in 7th grade (12 or 13 years old). I fell in love with it. I took it every year after that, and minored in Spanish in college. I remember in high school, I used to read to my mom in Spanish as she was cooking (she didn’t understand a word, but humored me), and I would work on getting rid of that American accent.
I’m now married to a Bolivian man and lived there for several months over the years…but I often here comments that I “have no accent” or speak Spanish very well. It is quite a compliment, but I write this just to say that it is still possible to learn a language, even if you start a bit later.
That being said, I do wish our country would place more emphasis on the importance of being bilingual or multilingual…I think starting them early is the best way.
.-= Susan´s last blog ..the last straw =-.
Thank you for sharing your story with us. You were a strong girl who knew what she wanted and followed her path. And you’ve reaped your rewards…what a beautiful familia!
This post is very, very reassuring. As a mother of 4 children, all at different developmental stages, it is great to know that it’s never late to introduce the language. We just started listening to Spanish radio stations in the car. My 3 year old daughter was so confused by the fact that the music was in Spanish, that she asked: “Mom…where did you buy that music?” I said: “This is Spanish music, it is available on the radio, just like music in Spanish…” This moment showed me how little I have been doing to not only speak to my children in Spanish, but also share my Hispanic heritage with them. I bring up this point to illustrate the fact that introducing the language, while also surrounding our children with cultural moments (e.g., listening to Spanish radio; visiting cultural museums; hanging out with Latino friends; spending time in our country of origin) can go a long way in helping integrating the language with real life moments. We are so fortunate to have found Spanglishbaby.com!! Thank you for all the expert advice, the tools and the reassurance!
You’re welcome! Trust me when I tell you we don’t do SpanglishBaby completely for unselfish reasons. It’s all the comments, emails, tweets, etc that remind us every day we’re in this journey for good and they make us accountable as well.
I was on the subway the other day and overheard a young woman saying that she spoke Albanian fluently when she was little but she completely forgot how to speak Albanian now. I know Spanish is spoken pretty much everywhere in NYC but I fear that the same thing could happen to my kids. I’m doing everything possible so that doesn’t happen but I wonder if there is an age where parents can relax and be sure that if they can speak the language by that age, they will speak it forever!!
I recognize your “fear.” My daughter’s exactly at that age, 2, where she’s learning new vocabulary by the day and I try so hard to not fall into the trap of which language is “winning.” It can drive you crazy!
We do the best we can to create a need for them to connect with the language. You, Fatima, are doing an amazing job with your music. I can picture your kids singing all the songs to your CD, El Baile del Sombrero, all day and dancing in the shows with you. Thanks for your music..it’s part of our repertoire!
I am glad to hear the ages between 10 and 13 are a good learning age too! Jeremiah and Audrey will both be learning lots of spanish these next couple of years!
Thank you for this excellent post. As a mother of 4 multilingual kids, I totally agree. The best period is 2 to 7 y/0 to see the results. Of course, the earlier the better. One of my best methods is taking the kids to a country (or an environment like “Abuela’s home”) where only that language is spoken. Also getting together with other moms who speak the target language and playing with the kids in the language/culture. That’s a very practical and easy approach.
.-= AnaRC´s last blog ..Signs You’re Over Socializing =-.
You´re completely right…and you should be since you´re an expert having raised FOUR multilingual kids? Which languages?
Definitely my priority is saving every year to be able to take Camila to both Mexico and El Salvador to visit the Abuelas. It´s a given.
.-= Ana Lilian´s last blog ..A Multicultural Noche Buena Feast =-.
The interesting question here is this: is there a cut-off age from which on learning a language comes with “adding a personality”? (See http://babelkid.blogspot.com/2009/04/language-and-personality-revisited.html)
I learned my 2 “foreign languages” late, probably past the age of 16 (English) or even 25 (French). I clearly am someone else when I speak English or French. A friend of mine who is trilingual from birth says he does NOT feel different, but he does when he speaks languages he learned later on.
So when does this happen? From what age on?
I never even thought about that, Jan! Very interesting… I didn’t learn English until I went to a bilingual school back in Perú, so it wasn’t from birth. But, it’s been such a huge part of my life since I’ve lived in the States for more than 20 years, that I really don’t feel any different when I speak it. I started learning French when I was in the 5th grade, but I don’t use it enough to notice if I’m a different person when I speak it…
BTW, the link you left in your comment doesn’t take you anywhere… I’d love to read it, though!
Thanks for your comment and remember we’re hosting the next carnival!
Hm… the link in my first comment doesn’t work for me, but it is indeed http://babelkid.blogspot.com/2009/04/language-and-personality-revisited.html
Can I use HTML here? If so: Language and Personality Revisited
Ah… actually not strange at all: in the first comment, the “)” is part of the link!
Can you edit that? If so, feel free to delete my other two comments
Jan I don’t think there’s a cut-off age per se, but just a little more of an adjustment period when we are older. And it may change us in ways we didn’t predict. I was always really extremely good at Scrabble (vocabulary/crossword game) — in English — never studied another language until high school and college and was never really fluent in anything but English. When I started learning Spanish, around age 30, as I got truly fluent in it I suddenly became TERRIBLE at Scrabble in English. I’d sit and sit looking at the letters but my mind was always just blank! I was so pathetic my 10-year-old found it too boring playing Scrabble with me and suggested different games. I also started having difficulty verbally spelling out things like MY OWN NAME or email address — in my “mother tongue” English! I’d get started and be ok for the first few letters, then my brain would sort of freeze and I’d be standing there probably resembling a dead fish with my mouth open, really trying hard to concentrate and say the next letter in English, then when I finally said it, the Spanish sound would come out anyway! It was very frustrating but I had already put so much time into learning Spanish and was already seeing a lot of benefits in my life from becoming fluent. I just didn’t want to give up. Over a few years it has gotten much better. I can enjoy playing Scrabble again (although I don’t win often) and can spell out my name to a clerk at the pharmacy without fear. It just took time.
I was around 30 when I started learning Spanish. It is NEVER too late. But… it is very true whereas adults may struggle to learn a language, kids absorb it much MUCH more easily. The relatively small effort pays off BIG.