What is the Best Age to Learn a Foreign Language?

The fact that my father dealt with native English speakers in his job as an interpreter didn’t facilitate my learning the language when I went to a Russian school with English bias at the age of seven. I encountered a lot of difficulties and didn’t make good progress in understanding grammar. It resulted in my inability to communicate in English in India where I had to spend seven months of my life being a ten-year-old. I only began to understand English grammar taking lessons from a private teacher before entering the institute. An idea began to form in my mind that it would be great to teach my future child to speak two languages at once.

After graduating from the institute I began to teach English. Throughout my career I’ve had a chance to teach all ages. My first and youngest pupil back in 1993 was four years old. Since that time I’ve worked with preschool and school children, University students and adults. And everyone faced the same problems. It took people years to master the language.

My idea to raise a bilingual child grew stronger but it reached its climax when my colleague brought to work her four-year-old son who could speak both Russian and French equally fluently. She said she’d been speaking French to him since he was born. So during the first years of his life the boy didn’t even realize his mother knew any Russian. I liked the result but I I couldn’t imagine myself speaking a foreign language to my child at the playgrounds and shops – it would look so strange!

Soon my daughter was born and immediately two things became clear to me: I couldn’t deny myself the pleasure of speaking my native tongue to her; I disliked the idea of deceiving her in any way. Now my desire to rid her of future difficulties was great but the best way to do it was yet to be found. When she was one day old, I addressed her with a couple of sentences in English. After returning from the maternity hospital, I began to read to her a page or two in English every day. We also listened to English songs and stories read by native speakers for a few minutes every day, the time I exposed her to English growing gradually.

When Dasha was 11 months old, I felt it was time for me to switch to English altogether. She is 34 months old now and I speak English to her whenever we are alone. When we go for a walk or when other people come, I switch back to Russian. My daughter can understand both languages perfectly but her speech is a funny mixture of Russian and English words along with some words she invents herself.

One of the first words Dasha began to utter was “up” and it is still among her favourites. With its help she refers to many concepts: “go up”, “pick up”, “grown up”, “top” etc. She also says a lot of short words such as: “car”, “blue”, “cup”, “cap”, “tights”, “boots” and so on.

Until recently it was I who chose songs and cartoons for her and she listened to a lot of English speech. But now she’s begun to decide for herself and more and more often I notice that she has a clear preference for Russian.

And I ask myself a number of questions: Am I on the right track? Did I choose the right age? When she begins to speak in sentences, will she be able to use both languages? How can I provide enough practice for her in future?

What do you think?

Michi аватар

Keep on speaking English to her. Winking

The practice and exposure will keep her on the right track to being bilingual. I can only imagine how strange it must be for you (though I've always thought that if I raise my future child in the U.S., I would speak Spanish to her so that she can have the opportunity to grow up bilingual, even though it is strange as it is not my dominant native tongue. But the benefits of fluently knowing more than one language, as you and I know, are wonderful!)

Your daughter may reach a point where she gets her languages jumbled up, but it will be a passing phase, and soon enough she'll dominate and control both languages. Best of luck in your language endeavors! I have a feeling that it will all turn out wonderfully!

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Thank you for your encouraging words, Michi!

Lisa аватар

Language learning is amazing isn't it? I think you've done the right thing. Don't worry if she confuses them for a while. She'll figure it out, and one day you'll find yourself having a complete conversation with her in whichever language she chooses.

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Oh yes, Lisa, it is amazing! A new language opens a completely new world, or it opens the world from a totally different angle.

Ariana аватар

You are absolutely on the right track!! We have dear friends of ours the husband is Russian and the wife is Cuban. Their daughter Katusha, who is only 10 year old speaks 3 languages without any problems. She communicates with her mom in Spanish and her dad in Russian and of' course English in everyday day life.

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Relieved to hear that!

Beverley аватар

I think being bilingual is a wonderful gift you give to your daughter. Not only will she have two languages 'to start with' but as you said it offers a different angle in which to view the world.

I met a young child once who translated my english to his grandmother and I was so amazed at how effortless it was for him that I am still impressed by it all these years later!

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Thank you for the kind words, Beverley! It really impresses very much to hear a child speaking several languages.

amblerangel аватар

I think school evens things out a lot. She'll realize that other kids speak Russian all the time so she should too. Then you'll have to "encourage her strongly" to use her English when responding back to you when you speak English to her or she will be at risk of becoming like what so many second generation immigrants are in the US- understanders of their native tongue- but non-speakers....It's so easy to understand- but a lot harder to actually speak. Then really hard on the parents to teach the dual language as you very well know! You are doing a great job though and what I've seen from my kids- 12 and 14- on the cusp on the drop off- is they are so open to learning- probably so much more is going in than you know- keep going even if you feel like you're getting nowhere. Good job Olga!

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Emily, the thing is she’s already realized people speak Russian in this country. Now it is getting more and more difficult for me to talk her into watching a cartoon or listening to a song in English. Or maybe it is just that she was exposed to too much English when she was smaller and now she is just doing her best to catch up with her Russian. That remains to be seen. I wish with all my might that she’ll be able to actually speak the language.

Lisa аватар

One of my biggest regrets is that a trip to Ecuador for about 5 weeks fell through when my daughter was around 6. I wanted to give her that experience, knowing she would come back talking better Spanish than we would. Someday I will get her abroad and absorbing language, I hope.

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Such experience can’t be replaced by anything else. It is great when children have an opportunity to travel abroad and learn language first hand. I hope, we’ll have a chance too. Happy

Marina at My Busy Children аватар

the right time is the moment they are born. definitely. It is hard to speak in 2 languages, the temptation to switch to one language is just too big.

I am amazed how many preschoolers I meet who do not speak Russian even though their Mother's mative language is Russian

admin Olga-ekb аватар

I see your point, Marina. Thank you for stopping by.

Cameron Brooks аватар

Reading a wide variety of books together in English will reinforce your efforts. Begin with picture walks, and "read" the illustrations prior to the text. This activates prior knowledge, and primes the mind for new vocabulary and contextual conversation. I've found Literacyhead.com's Visual Vocabulary feature to be quite useful with young English language learners.

As she develops socially, she'll favor Russian more and more, but if you continue to communicate in English at home, the language is less likely to atrophy. She's so fortunate to have someone who understands the advantages of acquiring multiple languages.

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Thank you, Cameron. When Dasha was smaller, we read a lot. But now that she has discovered Russian cartoons she seems to have lost interest in reading. Maybe you’re right and what she needs is a change of scene provided by new pictures.

Amy аватар

This is really interesting. I can only speak English, and like I told you before, I only remember how to say "I love stupid people" in Russian from high school. Happy
But we have good friends who are an American-Danish couple, and their kids speak both languages, and like you said, sometimes it's an interesting mix of the two.
But I would love to give my kids the advantage of knowing two languages.
I think it's the nature of being a mother to worry about whether or not you're doing the right thing. But you have her best interests at heart--she'll be fine no matter what! Happy

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Agree with you Amy. In early childhood it takes neither time nor effort to learn an additional language but later in life it does turn out advantageous.

jemmacheck аватар

My best friend's married to an American and has been living there for over 16 years now. When her son was born she spoke only Russian to him whereas his Dad of course spoke only English. When the boy was growing he mixed both languages and would say " как make мосты". Now he's 16 and speaks two languages, English's better.
I started teaching my own kids when the were two y.o. Playing, reading, singing. They aren't bilingual, but perfect in English when needed.

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Well, my daughter speaks in approximately the same way. Happy I hope she’ll be fluent in both languages too.

Ира Чирашня аватар

Olga, thanks for such an interesting post! I clearly understand your thoughts and worries. I feel the same way. You do the right thing teaching your child second language from her very first months. Kids are so capable to absorb a lot of new information; their young brain is a magically open to learn. My first set of twins is exposed to tree languages (Russian as their first, English and Hebrew) and the second pair know fluently Russian and English. We do try to keep at least two languages in fluent usage by readying books and watching movies in equal proportion in Russian and English. Knowledge of additional languages is the best gift we can give our kids, I believe.

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Thank you, Ira. I’m glad you feel the same. And it’s very nice to see you here. Happy

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Having read and thought over all of your comments, I know what I’m going to do now. I have realized that it is just that my daughter must feel tired of our old materials. So from now on I will do my best to provide new cartoons, books, songs and games in English for her though it’s not easy living in Russia. Luckily, there is the Internet!