The Language Learning Window

May 14, 2018

Credit Bruno Martins / Unsplash

We’ve all heard that the best time to learn a new language is when you’re a young child; think pre-school or elementary school. But a recent study by researchers from Boston College, MIT and Harvard finds that the window of opportunity is quite a bit larger than previously thought, extending all the way through high school.

Joshua Hartshorne is assistant professor of psychology at Boston College and a co-author of the study, A Critical Period for Second Language Acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 Million English Speakers. He explains that it was an internet quiz that actually helped the group come to this conclusion.

Hartshorne and his colleagues came up with the idea of an internet quiz to test language aptitude after realizing that bringing in half-a-million individuals to their lab to be questioned, their ideal number of people to test, was just not feasible. Here’s where the internet comes in: Internet quizzes were growing, the kind you see on social media. They had found their ideal outreach right on their computer screens.

The co-authors worked on the quiz and knew they had come up with the right formula once they, “wanted to take the quiz themselves.” It was a dialect quiz that tried to figure out what kind of English you speak, whether that’s Irish-English, Canadian-English, etc. It also tried to figure out your native language.

The quiz was relatively short, and it got quite popular, trending on Reddit and other social media sites.

The study found that the critical window for learning a language extends all the way to 17.4 years, which shocked them. Hartshorne says he expected it to be much younger. But the fact remains, while your brain can certainly learn new languages well into high school, learning is cumulative. So, if you want to be fluent. Start early.