How Young is Too Young to Learn English?

Parents only want what is best for their children and having them learn a second language at an early age can put them ahead of their peers. but at what age should children start and how young is too young?

Last winter, a friend asked me to teach her 2-year-old daughter English for two weeks, two hours a day. As I always do in these cases, I tried to dissuade her from engaging my services for this kind of teaching, since I consider it to be an expensive and ineffective proposition. If this parent sounds like you, allow me to explain why this isn’t cost effective.

Several scientists suggest that there is a biologically determined period of life when language can be acquired more easily, thus allowing a child the possibility to achieve native proficiency. It is claimed the ideal window for bilingual language acquisition spans from the age of 2 years old until the early years of puberty given that, afterward, the acquired language will be stored and accessed in a separate part of the brain. In early bilinguals, though, language acquisition and activation take place in the same area of the brain as the mother language. This is, perhaps, why many parents embrace the premise “the earlier, the better.”

Most children begin learning English at around 5 or 6 years of age.

But many parents seem to forget there is a myriad of factors influencing their child’s language learning, from biological factors to the stages of development of the mother tongue, from intelligence to emotions and motivation and, in my opinion, the most important one: the learning environment.

What my friend needed was an English speaker who could spend most of the day with her child, interacting with her in all sorts of activities and situations, in order to provide her with the necessary language environment to grow up fully bilingual. At such an early age, you do not need a teacher for this task; and if you are doubting my words, ask yourself how you learned your mother tongue. Chances are neither of your parents were Mandarin teachers. My friend needed an English-speaking au pair, and those are neither affordable nor abundant in Dongguan.

Since most Chinese parents of English students cannot afford to hire a teacher to replicate an environment in which English fully or partially surrounds their child, what are their options? Should they worry about this? The short answer is no.

Accepting that our children live in an environment that is not conducive to raising early bilingual children is an important step, but rest assured that EFL presents perfectly suitable conditions for bilingualism to develop. Ordinarily here in Dongguan, most children begin learning English at around 5 or 6 years of age, as they develop a basic command of Mandarin for daily life. At this stage, they have started to develop cognitive abilities and can draw experience from Mandarin’s general language system. Through the knowledge of their mother tongue, not only can they achieve more advantageous learning conditions than other children, but they can also more easily acquire grammatical rules and syntactic phenomena.

But there are measures a parent can take to bring a child as close as possible to the learning environment enjoyed by an early bilingual child. From allowing your child to watch, play, listen and read content in English, to nurturing friendships or participation in extracurricular activities where they can engage with foreign English-speaking children or even adults, the opportunities for English exposure are only limited by the imagination. With the end of the academic school year around the corner, overnight English summer camps both in Dongguan and abroad are perhaps the timeliest option.

In conclusion, starting your child’s English learning path at an early age is only useful if the exposure to the language is plentiful, frequent, diverse and appropriate, and this is not only expensive but also difficult to coordinate. But remember that facilitating maximum exposure to the language from an early age and following the regular path of English learning can provide everything needed to achieve the same result: bilingual children.