Photo credit: koka_sexton

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on this blog in November 2009.

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.”

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