Myth busting "the earlier the better" statement!

child development language acquisition languages Jul 21, 2021

Just how many times have you heard this – “the earlier the better” when it comes to learning languages?

But is this really the case?


First, it’s really important to think about exactly what you are measuring. What does “better” mean?

👉 If it’s how long it takes to learn a new language, then it’s actually quicker when you start later on in life and thinking skills have fully developed.

E.g. If one group of children start learning a second language in reception/ kindergarten and one group of children start learning a second language at the end of primary school, they will all be roughly at the same level when they finish secondary school. The only really measurable difference might be how 'native' they sound, not how fluently they speak or their vocabulary or understanding of grammar.


👉 You could argue that 'the earlier the better' is true for infant simultaneous bilinguals (children who are learning two or more languages simultaneously from birth and who are fully immersed in both).

In contrast, early primary school children have less well-developed cognitive skills than older learners, as they are still learning how to think in an age-appropriate way, and they also have a lot less exposure to the new language(s), unlike babies who are immersed.

On average, primary school pupils in England receive 30 minutes per week of French in a non-immersive setting, often without a fluent speaker. This is why approaching 'the earlier the better' with a bit of caution is useful – it is not universally true!


You might be wondering why we’re busting this myth when our hub is all about exploring languages with your little ones and doing this from even when they are teeny tiny!

Well, the reason is that we feel there is a lot of confusion and misinformation out there around what is the best approach to support children learning languages.

We are not jumping on sensational claims that your 9 month old will be fluent in 10 languages if they do Babel Babies!

Our mission is to look at all these amazing statements and claims, explore them using the latest science (very helpful to have Cate doing her master’s in Applied Linguistics for this!) and deliver honest summaries - highlighting the gaps and edges as well as the jaw-dropping stuff!

If you would like to know more, listen to episode 2 and episode 20 of The Language Revolution podcast, where Cate asks neuroscientist Dr Thomas Bak and multilingual education lecturer Eowyn Crisfield if 'the earlier the better' is really true.

What’s your experience of this?

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