What is the best age to learn a second language?

In fact, both children and adults have certain advantages.

Why Children are Good at Language Learning

In 2018, MIT did a study on the brain’s ability to learn foreign languages. The study found that up until the age of seventeen or eighteen, our brains are particularly capable of learning new languages. Language study before the age of eighteen increases a person’s ability to master grammar and pronunciation quickly and accurately. People who start learning a language at a young age are more likely to speak it at a native or near-native level. Also, since our language learning ability decreases as we reach adulthood, it’s best to start our linguistic pursuits as early as possible, in order to get more years of optimal learning.

The MIT study did not give a definite reason why kids seem to be better at learning languages. Some have suggested that children are more likely to be in a total immersion environment, and others have cited youthful neuroplasticity (brain adaptability). Compared to adults, children are often less afraid of making mistakes, and this along with a good tutor can help them learn.


Why Adults are Good at Language Learning

Irish polyglot, Benny Lewis, author of the book Fluent in Three Months, believes that adults make the best language learners. He points out that adults are aware of universal aspects of human communication, such as body language. Adults are intrinsically motivated. An adult who wants to learn a language has the freedom to choose the textbooks they want, arrange lessons that suit their preferences or even buy an airplane ticket to a place where their target language is spoken. Adults can recognize and analyze patterns. Adults often put more effort into their studies and don’t need to be entertained with songs and games.


My Opinion

I’ve been teaching English to children since 2008. I’ve worked with three-year-olds up through high schoolers. On italki, I work with both kids and adults. My adult students are very motivated and they make a lot of progress. Nobody should feel like they are too old to learn. Learning a language as an adult takes more effort, but it’s doable and can even be enjoyable.

I’ve met some children who speak English so perfectly that I sometimes forget that I’m not talking to a native speaker. I’ve also worked with kids who initially didn’t want to speak, because of bad language learning experiences in the past. In the right environment, children are fantastic language learners. The key to helping your child take advantage of their high natural language-learning ability is to support them in the right way. 


Five Tips to Help Your Child Learn any Language

1. Be positive! 

This is my most important tip. Never get mad at your child for making mistakes. When they first start to speak a new language, give them a lot of praise for trying, even if they aren’t perfect. After a young child’s first language lesson, they might not remember every word they learned, but they’ll remember how they felt. Were they happy? Was it fun? If you can help your child learn to love languages, they’ll want to study and improve for the rest of their life.


2. Combine language learning with your child’s hobbies and interests.

I once taught a twelve-year-old girl who was obsessed with Pokémon. She told me during our first class that her father had promised her she could talk about Pokémon as much as she wanted, but she had to do it in English. I never had to give her homework, because she spent hours between classes teaching herself words and sentences so that she could tell me everything about Pokémon. Encourage your child to use their new language to explore and talk about the things they love. Lessons with an italki teacher are a great way to do this because many teachers will customize the lessons according to what your child likes.


3. Give your child lots of language exposure.

Books, videos, movies, TV, and online pen pals are all great! You can even have special family dinners or game nights in the target language. 


4. Choose the right teacher.

italki has many excellent teachers, but not all of them specialize in teaching kids. Use the proper search filters, or check out this page, to find a teacher who is experienced in working with children.


5. Give your child some autonomy.

Older kids especially like to make their own choices. If you want your child to learn vocabulary, why not give them a list of twenty words and let them choose which ten they will memorize? If you want them to take lessons, why not ask them if they prefer to learn before or after dinner? If you’d like them to learn with an italki teacher, you can try finding five teachers who you think would be suitable, and then let your child choose their favorite. Help your child feel in control of their language journey.

What is the best age to learn a second language? It is never too late for your child to start learning a new language. Every age is the best age to learn a new language if it is done with the proper considerations. Find your child's next language tutor here on italki.