The Critical Period for Language Development
Research says that there is a “Critical Period” for language development in children. But does that mean kids can’t learn languages later on in life?
A popular misconception regarding bilingualism is that there is this window of opportunity that closes once your child reaches a certain age.
While much of the research on raising bilingual children states that the ability to learn a new language diminishes gradually as they get older, it doesn’t mean that it is impossible for your children to become fluent later in life. It is never too late.
Raising a bilingual child is all about how much exposure your child is getting to the languages, and how much interaction they are having, so even if your child is outside the “critical period” as they call it, it is still possible, it just may take a little more effort.
Recommended: 5 Stages of Second Language Acquisition
The “Critical Period of Language Development”
Studies show that children can be bilingual from birth. According to the Critical Period Hypothesis, the window of opportunity, or the critical period for children to become proficient in a language is between birth and five years old. That from then on, it isn’t as easy.
If you look at child development in general, those first years of a child’s life they grow quite rapidly and then gradually slow down. It’s kind of just like that.
Having taught English to children for many years, I have found that the younger the child, the easier and quicker it is for them to learn the language. Younger children don’t realise they are learning, they take everything in as it comes, and you can throw anything at them.
Even with my own kids learning Spanish, it was so much easier when they were younger. Now that they are a little older, it takes more effort.
As children get older, they become aware of the difference, and they have less patience, so it takes more of an effort. It doesn’t mean that they can’t learn a second language, it just means it may not be as easy.
It has been debated, but many agree that during this critical period of language development, children are more likely to pick up the native accent. Younger children are able to distinguish better between sounds and therefore they are able to imitate and pronounce them more easily.
What if we miss out on the window of opportunity”?
If you have missed the critical period for language development, there is still hope. It isn’t too late, your child can still learn a second language. While it may be easier for younger children, it doesn’t mean it is impossible, it is all about the exposure to the language.
If we take the children of expats or immigrants as an example who arrive in a new country, sometimes only speaking their native languages. Most of these children are able to start school with little or no knowledge of the community language and within a short period of time they are able to catch up with their peers.
This is because they have been thrown in the deep end and have been forced to learn it. Many families follow the Minority Language at Home language strategy. Where they’re children speak one language at home with their parents, and in their daily life at school they are exposed to a new language. With constant exposure, in a lot of cases the community language ends up being the strongest later on.
As children get older, they tend to learn in a different way, studying and learning the proper grammar etc. There are many things you can do to help them with getting the exposure they need to become fluent speakers.
If you haven’t already, you can read my post on “How to raise a bilingual child if you don’t speak a second language” where there are some great ideas to introduce a new language.
Here are some additional tips:
If you speak the target language, introduce it right away.
Depending on the age of your children, you may not be able to switch languages completely right away, but you can slowly introduce the language in a variety of ways.
You can choose a certain time when you speak the new language, eg. after school when doing particular activities, or before bedtime.
You can start to “talk twice”, where you first speak in the language they understand, and immediately translate after in the new language. Slowly when they start to understand, you can speak more in the new language and eventually if you want to, commit to speaking in that language all the time.
How to introduce your second language
Send your children to a Bilingual School
It isn’t always possible, depending on where you live. However, giving your child a bilingual education will ensure your child is exposed to two languages and can use the new language on a day to day basis while learning the school curriculum.
Benefits of a Bilingual Education
Find a language immersion class
While younger children learn better through play, older children are able to follow a language course. Research different language classes in your area and make sure that the teachers are native speakers of the language. I recommend full immersion classes where only the target language is spoken.
Travel to a country where the language is spoken
Take a holiday or even take a year out and move to a new country. Of course this depends on your family and work situation, but if you can, it would be an incredible experience for your children.
If time is an issue, save up your holidays and go for a few weeks. Stay out of the touristic spots and travel through smaller towns so that your children can get real exposure to the language you want them to learn. Go to local parks where your children can meet the local children and practice.
If you’re lucky to have the means, then move abroad. Enroll your child in a local school and expose them to the language the best way possible while also immersing them in the culture.
Make a commitment, anything is possible
If raising your children to be bilingual is that important to you then there is no reason not to make a commitment and do it. Just because you may have missed the The critical period for language development, it is never to late.
No matter how old they are, children have the potential to become fluent speakers of any language, they just need enough exposure to that language. If you make it a part of their life, and create the need for the language, they will always have a reason to use it, and of course practice makes perfect.