Why Do Young Children Reach Fluency in a Second Language with Ease?

Young children, such as those aged 3 to 7 years old, are said to be like sponges. They absorb information and learning from the world around them with seemingly unrivalled ability. It follows, therefore, that they will be able to reach fluency in a second language much more easily than older children, and certainly adults.

In fact, there’s a definite window in childhood when it is considerably easier to acquire a second language, certainly with fluency. Researchers disagree how long that window remains open, but some say it reaches its peak by around 7 or 8 years old. After this point it is understood to be harder to learn a second language, and considerably harder to gain fluency in it.

Why is this so?

Our Developing Brains

When we look a little closer at this ‘window of learning’ we discover that it isn’t fixed for all things. That window is open for different developmental skills at different times. Harvard University’s National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2007) paper ‘The Timing and Quality of Early Experiences Combine to Shape Brain Architecture’ is fascinating in this regard.

The scientists behind this paper call the window of learning a ‘sensitive period’. In these periods a child’s neural circuits are particularly open to learning through newly presented experience. Whilst the same learning is possible after that sensitive period, it’s never as easy, or as successful.

This is particularly fascinating when we apply it to learning a second language and gaining fluency in it. Here, younger is better – particularly for pre-schoolers. 

In the book, ‘Raising a Bilingual Child’, by Barbara Zurer Pearson, she explains how young children, under the age of 7, use a diffuse area of the brain to ‘assign meaning to words’. They truly can gain fluency more easily. Learning at this stage means you’ll be able to learn to think naturally in the foreign language, but also to pronounce words with fluency too.

It’s also about grammar. Whilst you can work hard and learn a new language after adolescence, the window of opportunity seems to be particularly important for truly understanding grammar too. This research demonstrates how there are some ‘pockets’ of grammar learning that simply aren’t picked up in adult learners, whereas children pick them up naturally and with ease.

It seems that this window of opportunity, between the ages of 3-7 years old, often spanning the preschool years, is a time when the brain is particularly receptive to linguistic learning.

The Preschooler’s Window of Opportunity

This concept of the ‘window of opportunity’ becomes even more interesting when we consider that it’s not linguistic ability alone. Harvard University research shows that creativity, flexibility of thought and critical thinking skills are all boosted by learning a second language in childhood.

It’s thought that this is to do with the young child’s natural ability to learn. It’s not so much about what they acquire, as the foundations they lay for doing it. This is the time when they are laying down attitudes to learning and thinking. At this time children are learning through a multitude of different senses: visually, by taste, by smell, aurally, by touch and by doing. How well this stage of development is nurtured forms the basis of how well we will learn in the future.

There are other factors too as to why pre-schoolers reach fluency in second languages with ease. They are in the enviable position of not having the same structure and demands on their time as older school children and certainly adults. Their minds are free to learn as they want to, from natural exposure, rather than forced agendas, or learning to test. They are also less bound by the fear of mistakes and are naturally experimental.

How to Enable Preschoolers to Reach Fluency in a Second Language

Knowing that this window of opportunity exists makes us eager to grab hold of it and make learning a second language as natural as learning a mother tongue. Therefore, any language programme needs to be mindful of how early years and primary children learn, particularly in terms of how they associate sounds with visual cues and the things they do.

Avery Hill Education Programme for Early Years & Primary works directly at building the foundations of language learning in the window of opportunity. To find out more about our programme, see here.

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