Is it a case of 'the younger, the better' when it comes to learning a new language?
Yes and no - it all depends on context!
There is a difference between young children picking up a new language in an immersion situation, such as usually happens when children arrive at a young age into a new country and hear the words and structures of the new language all around them, day in, day out, and children exposed to a foreign language in the classroom for a limited period of time, say for only one or two hours a week, at best, which tends to be the case at the moment in the majority of our primary schools.
Immersion: younger children learn better with lots of input and lots of time
In the case of immigrant children, research has shown that adolescents and young adults are faster learners than young children, although younger learners do eventually catch up with, and often overtake, older learners to typically become indistinguishable from L1 speakers. This is not generally the case for adult learners. So in this context, earlier does appear to be better, but it comes with conditions: children need plenty of time and opportunity to make the most of being immersed in their new language.
Classroom: older children learn faster from limited input and limited exposure
What about learning a language in the classroom? Here the context is different, with children exposed to a limited amount of language for only a very short time, perhaps an hour or two a week. Young children are enthusiastic learners, who love learning languages and discovering new ways of saying things, but they are slower at learning languages when input is limited. In a classroom context, it appears as if older children learn faster.
At what age should children start learning a foreign language in school?
The Barcelona Age Factor Project (BAF)
The BAF Project has been running for over twenty years and has provided a most valuable framework for studies relating to rate of language-learning and optimal age for language acquisition in school contexts by comparing the performance of bilingual Catalan-Spanish learners who began a first and / or second foreign language (FL) at ages 4, 8, 11, 14, and 18+ years. The project yielded both cross-sectional and longitudinal data.
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If you are interested in finding out about research that is being carried out in this area, click on the button to the left for one-page reader-friendly summaries.