Second Language Learning: Best Time to Learn, How, and Why
Learning a Second Language
As someone who has taught Spanish to people from preschool age to adults (my oldest student was in her 90s!), learning a second language can be a challenging task. It’s also extremely rewarding and fun to be able to communicate in a language other than your native tongue.
Having years of experience teaching a second language, I’ve gained quite a few insights into figuring out the best time, methods and reasons why you should learn another language.
What’s the Best Time to Learn Another Language?
Being Younger Helps
In my experience, the younger you are when you learn a second language, the better.
Scientific studies suggest this, but I can tell you that after teaching hundreds and hundreds of students, I feel certain that this is the case.
Your Brain is Primed for Language at a Young Age
Consider this: when you’re a typical baby in the United States (and around the world for that matter), you do a lot of listening. Sure, you explore your world and coo and cry, but generally, you’re listening to what people are saying around you, or on TV, the radio, or via music. Your brain is literally primed to accept language as input.
Then, at about a year old , you start making simple words. After another year, you’re putting complex sentences together. Later, you learn to read and write, further increasing your language skills.
You spend most of your younger years listening and speaking, and then adding reading and writing as you get more advanced.
The So-called Language Channels
Now consider the fact that as you get older, you start to specialize in other skills. Your brain focuses less on language learning: it’s already learned what it needs to know. You develop other skills in school, sports, music, games, or other things.
Because your brain is now focused on learning other skills, it begins to shut down those “language channels.” Sure, you can still learn another language when you're older, but it has to happen while you’re doing lots of other things, too. The process is slower and it can be more difficult.
Let me give you some examples.
When I teach young children a second language, in this case Spanish, I can speak only in Spanish (well, most of the time) and they pick the language up through context. After awhile, they don’t bat an eye when I’m immersing them in Spanish. In fact, I can speak it all day long and they often happily adapt to the immersion.
Have You Learned Another Language?
Learning Later In Life Can Be Challenging
With high school students, it’s a lot different. While it’s easier to teach the actual mechanics of a language, I find that many older students are tentative about it.
They often don’t want to make mistakes in front of their peers and it takes many more repetitions of the same word or phrase for it to “stick.”
The same is true for adults, though I would say the number of times that the effort to memorize words and phrases is even greater.
They still experience success, for sure.
Often times, my older students have reported back to me on how much learning a second language helps them with English, as well. They become more aware of how they listen, speak, read and write.
When your brain hasn’t switched off its “language channels” as I like to call them, you can still gain native proficiency and sound like you learned the language as a native speaker.
Learning After Adolescence
It’s right around puberty when the brain starts to turn off its remarkable ability to acquire language easily. If you learn a language after that, you will not sound like a native speaker and it will be more difficult to gain native proficiency.
This is why, for example, Arnold Schwarzenegger still has a distinct accent. Though he has spent decades living in the United States and speaking English, he will always have an accent because he learned English after his language channels closed.
To be sure, a person can learn a language at any time. However, younger students’ brains are more primed to learn languages at that point in their lives.
Learn Some Spanish With Your Child
What’s the Best Way to Learn Another Language?
Think about how you learned your native tongue. You listened and then repeated the words you heard all the time. You were immersed in it.
The same is true for learning another language.
You need to immerse yourself.
It can take up to two years of immersion to really, effectively learn most of the ins and outs of a particular language if it’s not your native tongue.
Professors that I have worked with tell me that this is the standard amount of time they need to spend in another country or immersion situation to really be good at that second language.
But what if you can’t immerse yourself?
You can still learn the language very well!
Undoubtedly, it takes years of studying another language to get pretty good at listening, speaking, reading and writing it.
Think about all the time you spent learning to read and write in English, and then all the vocabulary words you learned in school.
You Cannot Learn an Entire Language in a Month
If anyone tells you that you can learn a language in a month and be fluent, be very skeptical.
You can learn a lot in a month, but there’s no way you’re going to know tens of thousands of words in 30 days and how to use them in the proper order, not to mention all the idioms and cultural nuances.
The next best thing then is to take as many classes as you can in the second language and practice it as much as you can.
With younger children, schools that have dual-language immersion programs are a best bet. There are a number of schools around the United States that have such programs, both public and private.
Knowing What You Know Now, When Should US Schools Incorporate Langauge Programs?
FLES, FLEX, Middle and High School Programs
FLES and FLEX Programs
The next best option with younger children are “Foreign Language in the Elementary School” or FLES programs. The best FLES programs aim for second language classes 3-4 days per week, with 30 to 45 minutes of instruction as ideal.
If a school has less than those requirements, they turn into FLEX programs, where language exposure is the goal, but not language proficiency.
Middle School Programs
The next best time to learn is in middle school. The language centers in the brain haven’t fully formed, though they’re close. Having language classes as often as possible is key.
After middle school, it’s definitely still possible to learn another language; however, it will require more repetition and a willingness to make mistakes in the language.
Language Learning in High School
From experience, I can tell you that high school children and adults have a more difficult time with this.
At any point in the language learning process, it’s critical to speak, listen, write and read as much as possible in the second language.
I personally started learning Spanish when I was quite young. My mother spoke the language at home some, but did not teach me. It helped that I heard it all my life, however.
I started learning French and Spanish in middle school, and continued learning both languages throughout high school. I continued learning Spanish in various immersion-style situations in college and beyond.
I have another friend who was in her first year of learning Spanish in college.
She and her roommate decided to only speak Spanish to each other. They were so successful, they both were able to skip an entire year – Spanish II – and go right into Spanish III their sophomore year in college.
Why Learn a Second Language?
Learning another language has so many benefits.
- It helps you with your first language.
I have so many students who tell me that they learn about English because of the Spanish classes they take. It’s because you have to know things like parts of speech really well (nouns, adverbs, prepositions, for example) to be able to put words together properly in the second language. Then, when you understand parts of speech in your own language, you can formulate words in the second language by using the parts of speech.
- It helps you to be more marketable for jobs and other professional endeavors.
Let’s say you’re looking at two candidates for a particular job to fill. They have the exact same qualifications except one is a bilingual English and Spanish speaker. Who would you hire?
The bilingual candidate can communicate and help that many more people.
- Studies have shown that people who are exposed to more than one language have higher test scores across all subjects.
Indeed, schools that have programs in place with strong language programs – especially at the elementary level – have students who fare better on local and state-level exams. They even perform better in less obvious subjects such as math.
Did You Know?
Did you know that more people speak Mandarin than English and Spanish combined?
Did you know that there are more speakers of Hindi than there are English speakers, but more English speakers than Spanish speakers?
Did you know that the United States, United Kingdom and Australia do NOT have an official language?
Check out the page on the Most Spoken Languages of the World.
Maybe Mandarin should be the next language I should study!
Learning Another Language Has More Benefits
- Knowing another language allows you to communicate with hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people.
What a great feeling to know that you can travel to another country and speak the language and not have to rely on an interpreter or have your nose stuck in a translation dictionary.
When people visit your own country, it’s a great feeling knowing you can help them out by giving them directions to a bank or post office using their language.
If you’ve ever traveled abroad and found someone who spoke your first language, you’ll know how comforting it is.
- Learning another language allows you to learn about other people and cultures in a way that is not possible in your native language.
For example, if you like poetry, there is something to be said for reading a poem in its original language. Some things just aren’t translatable because you’re communicating an essence or a feeling that can only be expressed through that cultural perspective.
When I read Spanish poetry, for example, the eloquence and cultural understanding expressed in the words makes the poem come alive. When you translate a poem to English, something is always lost, and vice-versa.
Many more reasons exist to learn another language, but with time and practice, it’s always possible.
© 2013 Cynthia Calhoun