Why early foreign language learning?

Research has shown that infancy (0-3 yearsis a unique time for language learning. Infants have the natural ability to acquire one or multiple languages through social interactions (Kuhl, 2007, Werker&Byers-Heinlein 2008). Moreover research with infants from bilingual families shows that the human brain can easily acquire two languages simultaneously (Ferjan Ramirez et al., 2016; Garcia-Sierra, Ramirez-Esparza, & Kuhl, 2016) and that those bilingual infants have the ability to control their two languages.

Another advantage of acquiring foreign languages in infancy is that it also has an impact on neural language processing (Berken, Gracco,&Klein, 2017; Klein, Mok, Chen, and Watkins, 2014), enhancing higher brain-tissue density in the regions of the brain responsible for language, memory and attention (Mechelli et al., 2004). In other words, children who benefit from early exposure to more than one language are likely to have more brain activity in areas related to executive functioning (Ferjan Ramirez, Ramirez, Clarke, Taulu, &Kuhl, 2016).

OK, we know WHY is important, but HOW can we make that happen if one is not born in a bilingual family?

Nowadays, in most of the countries, L2 learning is introduced in school settings when students are 6/7 years old. We know now that 0 to 5 is a critical age, a window of opportunity for foreign language learning and that during this period infants’ learning seems really magical, a fact also shown in the most recent study on early foreign language learning. So, why isn’t foreign language learning introduced earlier than 6/7? In some private institutions, it is introduced earlier, but it is very important how. A recent study in early language learning shows us that children should benefit from daily exposure to a foreign language and that exposure should be done through social interaction with another person.

A very recent study ( Naja Ferjan Ramírez, Patricia K. Kuhl, 2020) extends the research done so far in this field and approaches the issue of infants learning a second language in the context of an early education center (if they don’t get exposure at home). Basically, they trained teachers who spent 45 minutes every day with groups of infants following a play-based English language program designed by the researchers. In the study there were 800 infants involved, from ages 9 months to 33 months  who were grouped into age-specific classes from early learning centers that a had a lower socioeconomic population from Madrid, Spain. Overall, the study showed the effects of an interactive, play-based English language program. The program they used throughout the study focuses on social interaction, play and quality and quantity of language from teachers. All teachers who participated were trained with SparkLing (an online software) and the teachers were all native speakers of English.

Teaching Language Though Playful Learning

The infants received 45-min-long English play sessions led by teams of three tutors, who interacted with groups of 14 kids (with the 9-21 months group) or 20 kids (with the 21-33 months group). The learning context was very social, with weekly themes, activities and games which prompt students to interact. Tutors engaged the children in frequent back-and-forth exchanges and they were able to hear English from multiple speakers.


After 36 weeks, children’s language production contained both English and Spanish, as well as other sounds, such as babble, imitations of sounds of animals. The results showed that children who continued the lessons for 36 weeks also continued to rapidly advance their second-language comprehension and production skills.

Therefore, if more early learning centers followed a play-based language learning program, more infants could get exposure to a foreign language before the window of opportunity has closed.


Berken, J. A., Gracco, V. L., & Klein, D. (2017). Early bilingualism,language attainment, and brain development. Neuropsychologia, 98, 220–227.

Ferjan Ramírez, N., Ramírez, R. R., Clarke, M., Taulu, S., & Kuhl, P. K. (2016). Speech discrimination in 11-month-old bilingual and monolingual infants: A magnetoencephalography study.Developmental Science, 20. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12427

Ferjan Ramírez, N., Ramírez, R. R., Clarke, M., Taulu, S., & Kuhl, P. K. (2016). Speech discrimination in 11-month-old bilingual and monolingual infants: A magnetoencephalography study. Developmental Science, 20. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12427

Garcia-Sierra, A., Ramírez-Esparza, N., & Kuhl, P. K. (2016).Relationships between quantity of language input and brain responses in bilingual and monolingual infants. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 110, 1–17.

Klein, D., Mok, K., Chen, J.-K., & Watkins, K. (2014). Age of language learning shapes brain structure: A cortical thickness study of bilingual and monolingual individuals. Brain and Language, 131, 20–24.

Kuhl, P. K. (2007). Is speech learning ‘gated’ by the social brain?Developmental Science, 10, 110–120.

Mechelli, A., Crinion, J. T., Noppeney, U., O’Doherty, J., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., & Price, C. J. (2004). Neurolinguistics: Structural plasticity in the bilingual brain. Nature, 431,757.

Naja Ferjan Ramírez, Patricia K. Kuhl. Early Second Language Learning through SparkLing™: Scaling up a Language Intervention in Infant Education Centers. Mind, Brain, and Education, 2020; DOI: 10.1111/mbe.12232 Werker, J. F., & Byers-Heinlein, K. (2008). Bilingualism: First steps in perception and comprehension. Trends inCognitive Science,12, 144–151.

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