What's the best age to learn a language?

Can you lose your native language? And what's the best age to learn a second (or third, or fourth) language? Here are two features I wrote for BBC Future about languages and language-learning.

Interestingly, the feature on losing your mother tongue seemed to resonate with a lot of people - I've had fascinating exchanges with rusty native speakers from around the world. But I also enjoyed researching the one on age and language. As one of the experts says: “Not everything goes downhill with age." Our attention span increases, for example. Our study skills improve. And we can read books! Which has definitely been a huge factor in my own language learning. What's your favourite learning strategy?


  1. Dear Sophie

    I have worked in Paris for three years and in Hamburg for one (in fact I am still there during the week now). I would say total immersion. Sink or swim but after thinking about how to swim! To do this I have to ask my colleagues not to speak English to me unless I ask. They have to be advised and aware you are trying to learn. But that is not enough, so here’s a few things I have thought about …

    …firstly, I think a CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK is needed.

    What are the key concept areas that you need. Write a list of key areas ‘that need to be understood’. So you have a macro picture. Also depends on your situation. I work in the insurance industry so technical terms matter and need to be understood. One persons route may be different to another. Conversational language on holiday is different to conversational language at work. So what situations will you find yourself in and think through the possible exchanges and resultant language needs…questions, responses etc.

    Then, after concepts, what FACTS need to be memorised. You will never get past the idea that verbs / grammar / nouns just need to be remembered, so what are they…And maybe use mnemonics to help. Also, find a Google list of the top 1,000 words used in any language.

    But the big difference that brings the foundation of CONCEPTS and FACTS into learning is then setting up PROCEDURES. What practice procedures will you identify that will help. So, for example, choose a language teacher online for Skype calls once per week, join a local class, find someone who wants to learn your language and set up coffee shop conversation learning meetings. Get the ‘Duolingo’ app or ‘Babbel’.

    Then practice every day. Promise yourself you will make 5 minutes a day and build the habit. The amount of time you spend will increase naturally. But promise yourself you will at least invest 5 minutes per day.*
    *Side note - I went to a four day course on 'behaviour design' with a focus on 'habit' development with a Professor from Stanford (BJ Fogg) to learn the associated methodology for habit design, which boils down to start with tiny habits by creating a trigger, feel good because you are achieving and watch the habit grow naturally).

    Finally set a goal. For example,‘basic conversational in ‘n’ months’ and remind yourself frequently why you are doing it i.e. the motivating purpose!

    Would be great to see an article on learning strategies generally, even beyond languages. That would be very interesting. I am also interested in 'systems thinking' currently and the emergence in education of this (non linear) method in learning. A great benefit to children.

    Kind regards



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