What age is best for you (or your kids) to start learning Chinese? A general consensus is that in order to develop a native accent easily, children should start learning Chinese before the age of 12.
However, experts have debated back and forth on the question of whether younger children can pick up languages faster. Here’s a summary of the arguments for you:
WHY CHILDREN ARE BETTER AT LEARNING CHINESE
Younger children can better pick up tonal differences. A psychology journal by a team at the University of British Columbia shows infants and their enhanced ability in phonetic perception. Basically, infants are much more capable of picking up subtle nuances in language and tone. This uncanny ability diminishes with adolescence and adulthood, around age 12. Another article from a research team at the University of Washington examines how younger children are more likely to develop a native accent in their second-language. Since Chinese is such a tonal language, younger children have a definite advantage because of their ability to pick up differences in tone and sound.
Some developmental psychologists argue that younger children also enjoy learning more than adults do.
Finally, younger children have an advantage simply because they will have more time to learn the language. Malcom Gladwell said that to become an expert in any field, you need to focus 10, 000 hours on it. That’s 416 straight days. With that theory, if you have a child learn Chinese for an hour a day starting from the age of 5, he or she would be an expert by age 18.
There are many ways to jump-start your children's Chinese learning journey. One way is to get them involved in a Mandarin immersion program, where they learn Chinese in a daycare-like setting. Another is to find a TCYL-certified (Teaching Chinese to Young Learners) tutor.
WHY ADULTS ARE BETTER AT LEARNING CHINESE
Other experts argue that while your language-learning capacity does not diminish with age, there are other distractions in your life, such as work, school, and responsibilities. You don’t have hours to stare at the T.V and watch Dora the Explorer, for example.
With that being said, older children and adults have a better grasp on basic grammar rules and how sentences fit together, which can be applied to many other languages. It doesn’t matter that Chinese has a different grammatical structure, what matters is that you can better comprehend it based on what you know from your native tongue.
Having been in school longer, older children and adults also have more efficient learning methods than younger children.
Pronunciation is key when it comes to learning Chinese. There are several different tones (read more here) so in short – if you want to be able to speak it with a native accent, the earlier you start, the better. For children, it would be best if they could start learning before the age of 12. However there is no age limit for true bilingualism. It can take place at any time.
Still not convinced to learn Chinese? Read our article on 7 Reasons Why You Should Learn Chinese.