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When to Start Learning a Second Language?

By Bonnie Billak
When to Start Learning a Second Language?

Establishing the perfect age at which children should learn a second language is a controversial topic. Some people believe that second language learning should not begin before second grade (age seven), while others profess the benefits of starting at a much earlier age, actually as early as possible in a child’s life. This controversy causes great confusion for school administrators, especially those with little or no background in second language acquisition, as they work to set up programs for their students. In addition, this topic may even cause dissent among ESL teachers at the school, depending on the extent of their ESL training and personal beliefs.
Those who favor delaying the introduction of the second language until age seven base their belief on the idea that the first language needs to be fully developed before a second language is introduced, so as to not cause the child confusion. Skills already grasped or mastered in the first language will, they argue, transfer more easily into the second language (i.e. reading skills, etc.). They feel that the first years of school should be spent in a play-like setting, not struggling between two languages. Learning a second language at a very early age is, some argue, a task that is just too hard to impose on children.
On the flip side, those supporting the early introduction of a second language feel that by waiting until age seven, the child will be missing many years of great opportunities for language learning. Brain research has shown that at very early ages the brain can definitely distinguish between two languages and—amazingly—can even distinguish situations in which each language should be used. Think, for instance, of children in bilingual families who are exposed to two languages from birth and can easily handle both as they grow up.
In my own work, when I go into Pre-Kinder classes to work with three-year-old language learners, many times the native English speakers want me to work with them as well. When I explain that I’m there to work with the children learning English, I’ve had native English-speaking children suddenly start speaking to me in Spanish, hoping that I will add them to my group. What’s more, I’ve seen many instances in which native English-speaking children of parents that speak no Spanish leave Pre-Kinder speaking fluent Spanish, thanks entirely to what they have picked up informally in the classroom.
Students who are taught English at a very early age only need to learn a small vocabulary and very basic sentence structures in order to communicate. This instruction can be carried out through game-type activities so that the students think of language learning as something fun. It should never be taught in a very rigid and stress-producing format. In this way, as the child’s language skills develop in his/her native language, the same skills and vocabulary can be taught in the second language, thus making it useful and age-appropriate for the child. By delaying instruction until age seven (second grade), the child will be faced with the task of having to learn much more vocabulary and more intricate language patterns in order to communicate. That makes language learning more of a chore and less likely to result in the high level of language proficiency that could have been reached if instruction had started at a very early age.
When trying to sort out this debate, it’s important to take into consideration that international school settings have a unique student population. Due to the frequent mobility of parents due to job transfers, there are students born abroad who rarely visit their home country or become fluent in its native language.
In a 15-year action research study that I carried out to track language development at the early childhood age, results indicated no negative effects from the introduction of English as early as age three. In fact, the language development of the students in English followed that in their native language. In the few cases in which English scores were lower than expected, it was found that there was also a problem in the child’s language development in the native language.
Each school has the responsibility of deciding at what age it wants to introduce second language acquisition, based on its core principles and staff capabilities. However, it’s important to keep in mind that brain research, as well as academic research studies, support starting in the early years—the earlier the better, in fact.
Bonnie Billak is an ESL Specialist at the International School Nido de Aguilas in Santiago, Chile. She also does consulting work in the field of ESL teaching and evaluation.

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


12/03/2017 - Bonnie Billak
The link to the research mentioned in my article is:

11/23/2017 - Phillip Joiner
Dear Bonnie

Can you please send me on a link to the research you mention in your article which shows no negative effects of early English language education. Thanking you in advance.

kind regards

06/09/2017 - Zareen
Hi Bonnie
I am zareen from Bangladesh. I just read your article . It was great to have a clear idea that when to start the ESL program in a school. In here our school's name is "Pledge Harbor International school" where we are having most of the student from local community. Need your honest suggestions regarding how to help these student to teach 2nd language as English . If you send me any formet or easy idea or way to introduce ESL program to our early birds or if possible I would like to Skype session with you to take your help . I am also sending our website
www.Pledge Harbor International
Thanks for give me time to read my message. Take care
Warm regards



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