When to Start Teaching a Second Language to Children?

By Julia Solovieva – Language teacher with more than 10 years of experience in teaching English as a second language. You can follow her on FB on Random English.

Many teachers, researchers, and parents disagree on when to start teaching a second language to children.

But even though there are still people who believe that children should only start learning a second language at the age of 11-13, nowadays most scholars agree that starting as early as 3-4 and even earlier is highly beneficial.

There are lots of benefits to being bilingual, and you can help your child reap them by teaching them a second language at an early age.

In this article, we’ll take a look at children’s language development and what language learning activities you can do together with them – starting as early as a few months old!

1-8 months

At this age, babies learn to distinguish between language sounds and other noises. They begin to babble, ‘practicing’ to pronounce various sounds.

You can’t really do any language learning with your baby at this stage.

However, you can expose them to the sounds of the target language alongside the sounds of their mother tongue: talk to them, sing songs, read nursery rhymes.

The child won’t memorize words and rhymes, of course, but getting familiar with the sounds of a second language will help them with pronunciation in the future.

8-18 months

During this period, children begin to recognize individual words, attach meaning to them, and learn to use these words to communicate.

At this age, you can try learning individual words in the second language, naming everyday objects and toys.

You can even already try simple alphabet and word games.

However, don’t rush and follow your child’s lead: if this or that activity doesn’t work now don’t push them, try it again when they are a little older.

18-24 months

At this stage, children can distinguish between nouns and verbs.

They understand basic sentence structures and begin to use pronouns.

At this age, you can increase the variety of activities you are using to learn the target language. If you haven’t started learning the alphabet yet, now is the time.

At this age, you can introduce language games and add some second language learning when playing with different toys.

24-36 months

As they grow, children use more complex sentences and learn to make sense of the grammar of their native language.

They still make some mistakes, which is completely natural, but by 3 years old, about 90% of a child’s speech is grammatically correct.

At this stage, you can adapt the word games you play to include phrases and sentences.

Start learning songs and nursery rhymes – what the child could just listen to before, they can repeat and imitate now.

At this age, you can start teaching your child to read in the target languages.

Don’t use the alphabet toys to just learn letters: put the letters into words and sentences together with your child.

Use the books you have read to your child to ‘hunt’ for individual words they recognize.

Over 3 years old

Your child will continue to develop, expand their vocabulary, and use more and more complex sentences.

At this age and beyond, you can use a wide variety of language games and activities.

However, keep in mind that 3 is still very young. Whatever activities you choose, they need to be age-appropriate and centered around play.

No matter how great a language textbook you may find, your child will most likely be bored by most activities in it.

On the one hand, you can’t sit down your toddler and teach them a second language ‘properly’, by teaching them rules and explaining grammar.

On the other hand, your child can learn a lot of the language through play.

In these articles, we have gathered some of the best tips to help you teach a foreign language to your child, no matter their exact age.

Tips on when to start teaching a second language to children

So, when should you start teaching a second language to your child?

The answer is practically entirely up to you. Research shows that the best window to start learning a foreign language is before 6-7 years of age.

And some scholars advocate starting as early as possible, even within the first 6 months.

Thus, starting at an early age seems to be the best option.

The final choice of the exact age, however, depends on your wants and needs, and the overall particular context.

For instance, in a bilingual or multilingual family, it may be necessary for a child to learn a second language as early as possible to communicate with some of the family members.

It may also be necessary in the situation when the family speaks one language, but the child will have to speak a different language at school.

On the other hand, if you don’t speak the target language yourself and want to learn in or improve your level, you can take some time to do it – just don’t wait till your children are in their teens!

Here are a few questions to consider when deciding when to start teaching a second language to children:

  • Do you have the opportunity and resources to teach them at this age?
  • How soon will the child need to use the target language in their life?
  • Does the child enjoy language learning activities?

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