Why Early Second Language Learning is So Important

By Amelia Simsonson

Here at the Language Learning Institute, we stress the importance of early language-learning with our courses designed for young children (our summer camp programs) and even babies (Mommy and Me Program). While many are aware of the importance of early language learning, few know the biological details to this early education.

When babies are born, their vocal tracts are neither fully developed nor capable of using speech. Before babies ever speak or understand any words, they begin to learn and repeat sounds found in the language spoken by their parents. When babies reach the age of six to eight months old, they are able to start producing the most basic linguistic structure: a consonant sound followed by a vowel sound, for example “na”, “ma” or “da”. Between nine and eighteen months, babies start to combine these basic linguistic structures in order to form syllables. Around the world, babies’ first words are very similar. They all start with objects, followed by action or routine words, and finally start using words used in social interactions. Once babies begin to learn words, their vocabulary is made up primarily of nouns or basic verbs, without attention to verb conjugation. Once a child reaches the age of 18 months, he begins to learn a new word at the rate of one new word every other waking hour, and he begins to experiment with basic syntax, forming grammatical phrases such as “I sit”. Once a child is two or three, the rate at which sentences form is extremely rapid.

These developmental patterns occur in all children throughout the word, which suggests that there is a biological “peak” time for children to learn language. Since children are not typically formally taught a language, their development and reproduction of language stems from observation. While many children are exposed to varying amounts of a given language, research shows that if a child is not exposed to language, thus does not reflect it during this specific time period, then the child will never acquire the use of language. Children learn languages with the greatest ease from the ages of two to six. This language acquisition occurs extremely rapidly; starting with experimental sounds and a very limited vocabulary at age two all the way to fluency and experienced language use by age six. If a child has not been exposed to language by the age of six or seven, it is very rare that he will ever learn to speak at the same level of competency.

Provided that a child has exposure and practice using a first language, learning a second language has never shown negative implications. Most children apply their language knowledge acquired at a young age to their second language instruction. If they are exposed to the language outside of a school environment, they are able to learn the language in the same way that they learned their first language: through observation and repetition.

While there is certainly a peak time for language instruction, one can certainly learn a second language beyond those childhood years. The manner in which the language is learned and adopted varies based on the age of the learner. For example, a child may not need instruction in language use; rather he can absorb the language without formal instruction. On the other hand, adults may need some instruction rather than simply immersing themselves in the language with no prior exposure. Either way, learning a language is a fun and beneficial activity for a student of any age!

http://www.ling.upenn.edu/courses/Fall_2003/ling001/acquisition.html

http://ceep.crc.illinois.edu/pubs/katzsym/clark-b.html

http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/Papers/Py104/pinker.langacq.html