Young at Heart, Young at Language Learning: The Ages of Language Learning

Arianna Kitzinger PhD
University of Sopron, Hungary


Although nobody doubts the necessity of learning foreign languages, there are still fierce debates on the age when to start it. This article aims to help the orientation in the jungle of pros and cons and gives a brief overview of different language pedagogical considerations. It especially focusses on the benefits of the different ages and tries to justify the raison d’etre of both childhood and adulthood. The argument might be useful for everybody who teaches languages either at school or in adult education, and especially for teacher trainers who are responsible to provide their students with up-to-date viewpoints.

Key words: childhood vs. adulthood, pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages

Young at Heart, Young at Language Learning: The Ages of Language Learning

There is still a lot of uncertainty around early childhood bi- and multilingualism as far as the relation between the starting age and efficacy is concerned. Two camps seem to have emerged: the ones who are for and the other ones who are against starting L2 at an early age. (By “early” here pre-school and primary school age are meant; i.e. before the age of puberty.) Experienced researchers, due to lack of evidence, tend to avoid providing the public with black-and-white answers. Hoffmann (1991), instead of taking a firm position, draws the conclusion that both young and adult ages have advantages and disadvantages in respect of L2 learning.

Advantages of language learning in childhood and adulthood

In the current topic, a remarkable description can be read in Johnstone’s (2002) study that takes the advantages of the different ages in language learning into account. In the following table (Table 1) an overall picture of the benefits is outlined by completing them with the characteristic factors of language learning:

Table 1. The advantages of learning L2 in childhood and adulthood on the basis of Johnstone (2002)

For and against early language learning

Studying the above table, it may be concluded that acquiring a language at an early age might be called “parallel” while learning it in adulthood might be labelled as “consecutive”. The parallel characteristic of language acquisition is often attacked as it means that a child starts learning L2 before he/ she has confirmed his/ her mother tongue. M. Batári (2008) has collected the most usual counterarguments of early L2 learning which may be as follows:

  • low efficacy: e.g. forgetting: children forget as fast as they learn, thus it makes no sense to put the burden of a new language on them ∙ obstacles in L1 acquisition: it is not worth starting to learn a foreign language until
  • one is not aware of the basic vocabulary and grammatical structure of his/ her L1     
  • identity problems: children’s own cultural identity will be hindered.

Thought-provoking aspects are mentioned in the “against” camp by psychologists who are in fear of children’s “stolen childhood”. Among their argumentation the danger of the global consumer society, the developmental industry (i.e. the new key word in pedagogical psychology is “development”), and aggressive marketing appear. The myth of “the hurried child” (Vajda, 2009, p. 3) is flourishing and the demands towards young children are growing rapidly.

From the opposite end, Enever (2014) puts methodology into the limelight. In her reasoning, she refers to a recent study which seems to prove that those who start learning a foreign language earlier do possess better receptive skills by approximately 50%. She also argues for a higher number of languages learnt at primary level and sets Luxembourg, Belgium and Spain as an example. She firmly believes in further advances of early start and mentions better cognitive, communicative and social skills in the development of early starters. Among the decisive factors to improve the situation she emphasises the importance of well-trained teachers, the necessary resources and the appropriate classroom methodologies.

Infant and old age benefits

Whether bilingual children have advantages over monolinguals is still a question. On the basis of worldwide research Baker (2007) declares that bilingual children are in a favourable position as far as flexibility, creativity and divergent thinking are concerned. They seem to be more sensitive to communication and they tend to concentrate on the meaning instead of the sound of a word: for them a similar word to ‘cap’ is ‘hat’, and not ‘cat’, which sounds more similar to ‘cap’.

Diamond (2010) examines bilingualism from the part of infants and old people and finds that bilingualism has advantages at both ages. Infants can have cognitive benefits which may affect their life later. What children already know from possessing two languages (e.g. lexical flexibility) can be beneficial in other areas of life, especially in situations where one has to adapt to unpredictable situations or distracting stimuli have to be coped with. This latter function of the brain is called “executive function” (2010, p. 332) whose forming goes on in the prefrontal cortex which can be developed in the first 5 years of our lives. As far as old people are concerned, bilinguals’ Alzheimer’s symptoms appear 5 years later. Diamond makes a parallel between physical exercise’s beneficial effects on body and mental exercise’s positive effects on brain and mental diseases. The bilingual brain’s best exercise is practising two languages as a bilingual continuously keeps himself/ herself asking: “Shall I think, speak, or interpret sounds spoken to me according to the arbitrary rules of language A, or language B?” (2010, p. 333).

Conclusion: Adults or children?

As far as the ‘quality’ of bilingualism in terms of age is concerned, we may agree with Navracsics (2008), who assumes that there are domains of language learning where children, and there are fields where adults may have better results: youngsters have advantages in phonetics and prosody of speech while adults are usually quicker at learning grammar and producing sentences and texts. At lexical level there is no age limit. Considering all this, it is wiser to convert the debate of ‘childhood or adulthood’ into the statement of ‘childhood and adulthood’.


Baker, C. (2007). A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism. (3rd edn.). Clevedon⋅Tonawanda⋅Ontario: Multilingual Matters.

Diamond, J. (2010). The Benefits of Multilingualism. Science, Vol. 330, No. 6002, pp. 332- 333. doi: 10.1126/science.1195067

Enever, J. (2014). Janet Enever reflects on the #ELTJ Debate at #IATEFL 2014. Harrogate online: ELTJ / IATEFL Signature Event. Retrieved March 15, 2019, from

Hoffmann, C. (1991). An Introduction to Bilingualism. London and New York: Longman.

Johnstone, R. (2002). Addressing ‘the age factor’: some implications for languages policy. Guide for the development of Language Education Policies in Europe – From Linguistic Diversity to Plurilingual Education. Strasbourg, Council of Europe Reference Study Retrieved March 15, 2019, from

M. Batári, I. (2008). Párhuzamok az első és második nyelv elsajátításában – a korai nyelvi fejlesztés szemszögéből. In Vámos, Á. & Kovács, J. (Eds.), A két tanítási nyelvű oktatás elmélete és gyakorlata 2008-ban, (pp. 60-72). Budapest: Eötvös József Könyvkiadó.

Navracsics, J. (2008). A kétnyelvűség pszicholingvisztikájáról – dióhéjban. In Vámos, Á. & Kovács, J. (Eds.), A két tanítási nyelvű oktatás elmélete és gyakorlata 2008-ban, (pp. 43-60). Budapest: Eötvös József Könyvkiadó.

Vajda, Zs. (2009). Siettetett gyerekek. Iskolakultúra, Vol. 9, pp. 3-14.