what language should my child learn

What Language Should My Child Learn?

The child is not a vessel that is filled, but a fire that is lit”. Montaigne


“What language should my child learn?” This is the recurring question for parents, when choosing the first or second foreign language for their child. The question is complex and the answer is difficult to give.  This type of choice depends on various individual and family criteria. Nevertheless, the following criteria will help you to make a wise choice.

1- Motivation and Success

The best foreign language to learn is the one your child will learn successfully. And motivation, as in any other subject,  is one of the most important factors when it comes to  successful language learning.

If your child learns a language because he or she knows that he or she will need it in the near  future (to feel comfortable on a foreign vacation or  to communicate in the country that you are moving to) or the distant future (to enter a specific school or to study abroad for a specific job), then his or her motivation to learn will be what is known as “extrinsic motivation”.

But there is another type of motivation that plays a major role in learning a language, and this is known as “intrinsic motivation”. Communicating with a friendly teacher, receiving positive feedback, experiencing joy and pleasure in conversation, and feeling the progress made in a new language are all learning engines.

It is important to note that no amount of books read or movies viewed in the target language can ever replace communication with a genuine, native interlocutor.

2- The importance of each language in the world

Of course, each language has its own substantial field of influence. The choice of a language can therefore be guided by its importance in the world. The top 3 most widely spoken languages ​​in the world are:

1- Mandarin, which is the most widely spoken language in the world today.  It has nearly 860 million native speakers and 450 million people who speak it as a second language.

2- English, which is the first official language of a hundred or more countries. Native English speakers total around 425 million, distributed across every continent. English is also one of the most influential languages because, apart from being an official language, it is also the “first second language” chosen by nearly 750 million people.

3- Spanish, with about 340 million native speakers.  In addition to Spain, Spanish is spoken in nearly 31 countries, most of which are in Latin America.


what language should my child learn

3- The difficulty of each language and its benefits

Some languages ​​are more difficult than others to master. For example, an English speaker will need an average of 2,200 hours, or 88 weeks of lessons to speak something of Japanese. The Chinese, the Arab and the Korean take about the same amount of time. Conversely, it is estimated that it takes 23 to 24 weeks, or 600 hours, for an English speaker to achieve the same level in Spanish or Italian.

But whatever language you learn, exercise is always excellent for the brain.  Learning Chinese, a non Indo-European language, with radically different language patterns has a very positive impact on a student’s comprehension of language in general, thus indirectly improving his or her  knowledge of other languages. This has been highlighted in a study published in 2016, in the journal Nature: the more languages ​​we learn and the younger we learn them, the better equipped we are to learn new languages.

So there’s no time to lose!  Let your kids start learning a new language today. They will be eternally grateful to you.

Why Children Learn Better: Science Is Shedding Light

The man on the street has noticed it and science has confirmed it: children are more able to learn foreign languages and achieve high proficiency than adults. What are the reasons? All else being equal, neurology and psychology will provide us with the answers.

Neurological explanations address the state of the brain and its ability to carry out a given task at a certain stage of its development. Several hypotheses were explored as early as the 60ies. One dealt with brain maturation: the brain was thought to be like a slate of clay which, once carved with the mother tongue, could neither be erased nor re-written nor complemented by a foreign language. Another explanation, focusing on native language interference, claimed that once the mother tongue had been acquired, the learning mechanism itself was completely dismantled in order to reallocate neural tissues – a scarce resource – to other tasks. It is known today that some of these extreme explanations are wrong and others, incomplete and oversimplifying.

However, other age-related phenomena affecting foreign language learning are now much better known. The first one is the decrease of brain plasticity over time. Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, refers to the changes in neural pathways brought about by environmental or experiential stimuli. Each new learning (be it knowledge or skill) triggers new brain circuitry creation so as to transfer and process the information. Conversely, unused connections are disposed of in order to optimize the brain functioning and performance. At birth, each neuron (and there are about 100 billion of them) has 2500 synapses enabling neural connections. At age 2-3, the number of synapses per neuron increases to … 15000, that is to say twice the average adult number. In fact, by neural pruning, synaptic density progressively decreases from mid-childhood and teenagehood onwards, at a pace specific to each brain area. In addition, myelination (the sheathing of axons) reinforces the effectiveness of existing neural connections but is detrimental to the brain’s flexibility to set up new neural pathways. Specialization of brain areas to specific and precise functions carries on. Neuroplasticity inexorably decreases with brain maturation. Processes like language learning enjoy a privileged window of opportunity after basic sensory functions and before higher cognitive functions.

Hensch - Brain plasticity

Based on brain plasticity, learning goes through successive sensitive periods focused on: senses during early childhood, language and motor functions during childhood, and later higher cognitive functions (maths, critical thinking, etc…) (credit : adapted from Hensch, 2005, Nature Reviews Neuroscience)


David Birdsong, one of the current leading researchers on effects of age of acquisition, identifies other sources as well. Firstly, the widespread decline of cognitive capabilities with age is a regular phenomenon that does not spare language learning. Secondly, interference of the native tongue probably increases with age – age being a proxy of usage of this language. Last, according to psycho-linguists, Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device –giving access to Universal Grammar –, or any other language-specific acquisition mechanism, seems to disappear with age.

Socio-psychological reasons are completely different in nature but no less significant. Children do not feel embarrassed by novelty, since everything is new and consequently nothing is really abnormal. New sounds, even when very different from the mother tongue’s, are not frightening. Children utter them convincingly whereas adults might hesitate to stress them as strongly – they are so “weird”! More importantly still, children will not shy away from trying even if not completely sure, from having a go even if they are mistaken and must start again. Besides, other children will not be critical of the mistakes, at least not in the same proportions. As for adults, they might fear that their social status – which comes across so naturally in their mother tongue – could be degraded by an incomplete command of the other language. To make a long story short, social self-awareness sometimes plays against language learning by adults.


Regardless of the quality of the learning environment – this topic will be addressed at a later stage –, children are more able to learn foreign languages  than adults  because of neurological and socio-psychological reasons. This is why one should make the most of sensitive period of childhood – it is so favourable !