Transparent Inglês

What is the best age to start learning a foreign language? Posted by on Oct 14, 2013 in Intermediário

Currently, it is very common to find parents looking for English schools for their children at a very young age. They usually comment on the importance of studying a foreign language (FL) in childhood, so that their children can acquire the target-language faster and achieve a native-like performance. However, we could question if this is really the case, that is, if the earlier a child starts learning a second language, the better speaker he/she will become.

The idea that children are better second/foreign language learners than adults comes from the Critical Period Hypothesis, which proposes that the earlier a learner is exposed to the target-language, more chances of acquiring a native-like competence he/she will have.

There is a great discussion on the influence of age in foreign language acquisition. The assumption is that achieving native-like performance after the so-called critical period is possible, but rare. Nevertheless, it is not possible to assume that it is impossible for older learners to be highly proficient in a FL. Research shows that nativelikeness can, in fact, be attained in late L2 learners, and that input, amount of use and social function of the target-language also play an important role in FL acquisition, in addition to the learner’s age. In other words, attending a FL school at a very young age does not guarantee successful FL production, as the type of tasks, the kind of input and the time of exposure to the target-language are also determinant factors for attaining FL proficiency.

Thus, the assumption that “the earlier is the better” cannot be taken as absolute, since there are many variables that may influence FL acquisition. However, it is a fact that it is easier for children and teenagers to learn things in general, both for cognitive reasons, as associative memory and incremental learning elements of language learning are compromised by age (Birdsong 2006, p.34), and for the fact that the earlier the acquisition begins, the more input the learner will receive. As there is no consensus on the effects of the critical period, it is adequate to conclude that it is better to start learning the target-language early because children are ‘open’ to learning new information, as long as learning is seen as a continuous process.



BIALYSTOK, E. & HAKUTA, K. Confounded Age: Linguistic and Cognitive Factors in Age Differences for Second Language Acquisition. In: BIRDSONG, D. (ed.). Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999. p. 161-183.


BIRDSONG, David. Age and Second Language Acquisition and Processing: A Selective Overview. Language Learning, 56, 9-49, 2006.

BROWN, Douglas H. Teaching by principles: an interactive approach to language pedagogy.  New Jersey : Prentice-Hall, 1994.  467 p

FROMKIN, V., RODMAN, R. & HYAMS, N. An introduction to language. 7th ed. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2003. 620p.

GASS, Suzan M. & SELINKER, Larry.  Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2008. 357p.


Sobre a autora

Carina Fragozo tem experiência no ensino de língua inglesa há quase 10 anos e atualmente cursa doutorado em Linguística na USP. É autora do blog English in Brazil.

Keep learning Inglês with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it

About the Author: Adir

English / Spanish teacher and translator for over 20 years. I have been blogging since 2007 and I am also a professional singer in my spare time.


  1. Sergio Luiz Araujo Silva:

    All the comments that I will make is to say that I agree with what was written, I will add only a few points, my personal view on the subject. The vision of a Brazilian studying for three years in a self-taught.

    * In general the method used to teach children is completely different, the kids learn by infering the meaning in context, the adults “must learn rules” before speak, a complete inversion of natural process.

    * Without a huge amount of input the output is poor, without much listening it is almost impossible speak naturally, that is my opinion. It is why the quantity of dedicated time is without doubt one of the most important things in learning process.

    * The level of difficulty can be neither so high nor so low, and again kids, also have an advantage in this regard, since adults make things easier for them.

    * The amount of transferred content for children is divided into small doses during the day. According to the neurolinguistic teaches us.

    All these conclusions I have made by reading and listening teachers through the web, and I feel that is working perfectly to me.

    Thank you so much for your great article.

  2. Margaret Nahmias:

    Temos que considerar a influenci de idioma nativo também Cuanto mais esta customada a seu primera lingua mas dificil é aprender. Por isso acho que lhes custa algumas pessoa aprender como adultos. Crinças prodem aprender mais facilmente mas ha um pregro que podem peder fluencia em sua primeiro idioma. Mas concordo que vc terá mais tempo para aprender quando vc começa quando é jovem

  3. Raffaella:

    Interesting post. Although there is no consensus on the effects of the critical period, there is a general consensus among scholars that children are better SL learners than adults. Here a little review on the studies.