Language Learning Methods by Age

Language Learning Methods by Age

Language Learning Methods by Age

Or, what is the best way for my child to learn a new language at each age?
If you read my last blog post, What are the ways for children to learn a new language?, you know there are a few different ways to go about this process. And as i mentioned, some work better for certain ages so that’s what we will get into in this post.

In this post I will break it down by age range. There will be some overlap on techniques you can use at certain ages so don’t think that on their x birthday you have to switch your method. It’s just a guide for what might work best when starting out.


Years 0 to 2

Get ‘em early is the motto for most bilingual advocates. From the moment your children are born, or even before, you can begin using the languages you hope to teach them. So for very young children immersion is the best option.

This can take the form of the One Parent, One Language model where, for example, the mother speaks exclusively to the child in French while the father speaks exclusively in Swedish. But it doesn’t have to be a parent. Any caregiver who spends significant amount of time with the child can speak to them in the target language.

Search for One Parent, One Language and you will find a multitude of resources on how this can be done.


Years 2 to 5

The preschool years are very similar to the baby years in that language is best acquired through the immersion method. Sure, you could try and sit your 4 year old down to have a vocab lesson but how productive is that going to be?

When a child can talk but still cannot read they are still learning language through sound. So the only real way to teach them a language is by speaking in to them.

Here in the Netherlands, 5 years old is the cut off point for their system of “put them in school and they’ll figure it out” language learning. I think this is because 4 and 5 year olds are lumped together in ‘group 1 and 2’ and basically get two years of preschool before they are 6 and actually ‘start learning’ in group 3.

A 2 year old suddenly being spoken to in Yiddish will learn and progress at a different rate than a 5 year old will but they are still learning the same way. So if you have a 4 year old and haven’t been speaking in your native Polish you can certainly start now. You may get some resistance from the child because it is new but the One Parent, One Language method can still work.

Full immersion schools, bilingual schools and daycares are all a good option for this age group. Whether the school or daycare uses only the target language with the child or offers bilingual instruction the learning process is still the same. And still a highly effective way for children to learn a language.


Years 6 to 11

Here in the Netherlands, 6 years old is the cutoff age for the full immersion technique. If a child is 6 or older and does not speak Dutch they are sent to a special Dutch learning school where they are brought up to speed as quickly as possible.

From my understanding these schools are a combination of immersion and lessons. Kind of like an extended language camp. The teachers will speak to the children in Dutch but also give them specific grammar and vocabulary lessons as well as cultural studies.

For many kids, 6 is about when they start to read. So once a child can read there is a new component to language learning. Not only do they need to hear and speak the language but they also need to read it and then write it. For that reason basic language lessons are most common for ages 6 to 11.

These could be daily lessons or weekly, depending on how quickly the child needs/wants to learn the language.

In this age group the children are still young and can usually pick of the language faster than us old people. But the learning process needs to be fun and engaging.

I have heard that if someone begins language learning before puberty then it is much easier to become ‘truly bilingual’ (whatever that actually means). I’m not sure if this is because they are young enough that their brains are still flexible and they don’t have their language patterns solidified yet. If you’ve seen research on this let me know but we do know that the younger you are when you start learning a language the better it sticks. (This does not bode well for me now that I’m 40!)

So to recap, children in this age group can use the immersion method to learn a language but it will have to be supplemented with reading and writing lessons to complete their language knowledge.


Years 12+

I would be way off the mark if I said 12 year olds are basically adults but that’s what I’m about to say- at least language learning wise. By the age of about 12 our language patterns are pretty set in our brains and trying to change them requires more focus and intention than when the child was younger.

So just like an adult, language lessons are the best option for kids 12 and up. Of course, if the child has a Spanish lesson every day for an hour at a time they are going to learn faster than if it is once a week. But this age is also more independent than younger children and can take the language learning process into their own hands.

A 14 year old can take a weekly French class and then go home and study or listen to French podcasts or play French games on their own just like an adult can. They could also go to an immersion camp or foreign exchange program and work really hard at learning the language.

So what does this all mean?
So if you have a teenage, all is not lost. They can learn a new language but they have to want to learn. And that is really the key as a child gets older. A baby or young child has no control over the language inputs they receive. Older children and teenagers can decide whether or not they really want to learn. Therefore you also have to tailor the language learning process to the child.

Some children pick up language like sponges and a 12 year old can learn through immersion while hanging out with friends in Spain. Or a 4 year old might have difficulty distinguishing the sounds in a new language and could benefit from formal lessons.

But no matter what age you start at (even for us old people!), trying to learn a new language has many benefits. My life certainly would have been very different if I hadn’t started learning Spanish when I was 12. So try a variety of learning strategies if possible.

In future posts I will talk about how to make language learning fun so that young and older kids alike will want to engage in the process.
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