Answer: Before age 7.
Every language has its own set of sounds (for example, Japanese doesn’t distinguish between the “L” and “R” sounds the way English does). According to new research, scientists believe babies are born with the ability to distinguish all of these sounds, but gradually lose that skill as they age and learn their own specific language. That’s why it’s easiest to learn a language early in life instead of in the wee hours of the morning in a college library, cramming for a final exam—not that I’ve ever done that or anything!
Don’t worry if you’ve missed that window with your kids, though. There are plenty of ways to help children learn a second language.
Newer TV shows like Dora the Explorer and Ni Hao, Kai-lan have joined the classic Sesame Street to give youngsters an entertaining and educational way to pick up phrases in foreign languages. And there are plenty of books, CDs, and DVDs out there to help kids out in any language—from baby sign to Tagalog.
If your children have started to show an interest in learning another language, now is a great time to think about hiring a tutor or an instructor to help encourage their development—no matter how old they are. With a new school semester beginning, children are adjusting to new schedules and are mentally prepared to take on more challenges. If their school doesn’t offer foreign language classes or is cutting language programs in the recession (which is, unfortunately, a common problem), you may want to look at adding a language tutor as a fun after-school activity.
The benefits of learning a second language are well-documented. Speaking another language can help children with their cognitive development, give them extra future opportunities, and help them connect with their heritage.
If you’re thinking about having your children learn a second language, be sure to check out the Care.com Tutor Guide, which is full of information on finding, interviewing, and hiring tutors.