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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

When should a child learn a second language?

Children and adult language learning differ in a number of ways. Firstly, the brain of a child is still developing whereas the adult brain is fully mature.  The child’s is therefore more flexible and the neurons in the language system can adapt in accordance to both a native and a foreign language. This is why children are often able to learn a language without an accent in the speech and are able to distinguish the phonology of their second language better. Adults on the other hand, have a mature brain and are able to use their experience when learning. Adults are better and faster at learning by analogy, and at learning abstract rules and applying them. In addition to these differences in their brain capacity, children and adults typically also learn a second language in very different environments. Adults and teens learn a new language in a formal school setting, children learn by immersion e.g. in language day-care.

In order to answer when one should learn a second language, one should first determine what one wants to optimize: the end result or time devoted to learning.  As a rule of thumb, a language which is learned before the ages of 6-9 is typically learnt to a level where the speaker has no detectable accent and is very comfortable using it. However, this requires that a child spends a considerable amount of time hearing and using the novel language.  On the other hand, if a language is learnt later, speakers may have a slight accent in their pronunciation but may otherwise reach a very proficient native-like level.  Moreover, in proportion adults spend typically less time on the actual learning compared to small children learning a language. Of course adults can also learn a language through the environment in which case the time devoted to learning is similar to that of small children. Adults who learn this way typically nevertheless have an accent while otherwise reaching a good level. It should also be noted that while children are able to learn a language without an accent, both adults and children learn vocabulary equally well.

Especially for elderly learners the motivation to learn plays a crucial part in the quality of the outcome. In fact, even elderly people above 60 years can show good language learning results, which has been shown to also have a “protective” effect for memory diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Humans are naturally curious and people of all ages can be encouraged to learn languages and explore other cultures in doing so.

Written by Annika Hulten & Diana Dimitrova

Further reading:

Kuhl, P. K. (2010). Brain mechanisms in early language acquisition. Neuron, 67, 713-727. (link)

Rodríguez-Fornells, A., T. Cunillera, A. Mestres-Missé & R. de Diego-Balaguer (2009). Neurophysiological mechanisms involved in language learning in adults. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 364, 3711-3735. (link)

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

Questions and Answers

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos