How Quickly Can a Child Learn a New Language?

How Quickly Can a Child Learn a New Language?

How Quickly Can a Child Learn a New Language?

The short answer: It depends.

The long answer: It all depends on how much input of the new language the child is receiving. To explain this let me give you a very long example.

Two Kids. Two Experiences.

Six months ago my family and I moved to the Netherlands. At the exact same time another family also moved to the same city in the Netherlands. We both have 4 year old daughters. This means they were both put into Group 1/2 classes in their respective schools. In the Netherlands most schools combine groups 1 and 2 together so the kids are in the same classroom with the same teacher for the first two years. This means 4 and 5 year olds are combined and the older kids can help the younger ones. 

Side note, I love this age combining. It is great for the 4 year olds to learn from the 5 year olds. Kids also get two full years to go to school and have fun before they actually have to do any ‘formal learning’.

For simplicity and privacy I am going call one Jane and the other Clare. Both Jane and Clare moved to the Netherlands without previously speaking any Dutch. Their parents do not speak Dutch (although we are all taking classes, there is no fluency yet.)

In the Netherlands, if a child does not speak Dutch but is 5 or younger they put them into a regular Dutch school and let them learn the language just by being there. If the child is 6 or over, there are special schools that help children learn Dutch. But I can’t elaborate on that much because Jane is 4 and luckily found a place in the school just a few blocks from our house. Clare also found a spot in her local school. For reference, these are two different schools on opposite sides of town. I don’t think that really matters but I thought I would mention it.

Time at School and Beyond

I work from home so I can pick Jane up right after school. My friend works outside of the home and therefore Clare goes to an after school program.

For the first week or so of school Jane only went part time: from 8:30 to 11am. This was to give her some time to adjust and is perfectly normal for Dutch school. The teacher actually suggested this as Jane had just turned 4 and since children can go to school the day after their 4th birthday, no matter what time of year it is, they often do half days at first to adjust.

Because both of Clare’s parents work outside the home she attended full time school and an after school program from the start.

Other details to note include the fact that Jane lives in an area of town with a lot of other non-Dutch people. Meaning she has other English speaking children in her class (and other languages too.) As well as her teacher being comfortable in English and translating for Jane the first few month.

Clare on the other hand had a different experience. No other children in her class speak English and her teacher is not confident in communicating in English. So she was on her own in that respect.

So How’s it Going?

After 5 (almost 6) months in school, how are the girls doing?

Jane is doing well and progressing in her Dutch. Her teacher told me she understands about 90% of things said in Dutch. Of course the teacher isn’t giving talks about 18th century political theory or anything but Jane understands commands and simple explanations.

As far as speaking goes, Jane is solidly in the ‘Denglish’ stage of language acquisition. She started by using just one or two Dutch nouns in a sentence with all other words being in English. Now she does about 50/50. I hear sentences like “Ik will een sandwich.” She is trying to use the new language but just doesn’t have the complete vocabulary yet.

Clare on the other hand is basically at fluency for her age. This means she understands words, questions and commands that monolingual Dutch speaking children understand. She can also efficiently communicate in complete sentences. Of course, she doesn’t know every word yet (no 4 year old knows everything!) But she is correcting her mother’s Dutch pronunciations!

It’s All About Time and Necessity

So what’s with the difference in language acquisition? Time!

On average Jane spends 6 hours in a Dutch speaking environment. While Clare is in a Dutch speaking environment for 8 or 9 hours per day.

Also, Jane can get by using more English. She has other children she can talk to and the teacher understands her. Clare on the other hand had to learn quick so she could talk to friends, understand the teacher and get her needs met.

So What Does This Mean?

The point of me sharing this very long example is to highlight that length of time, such as months or years, is not the key factor in a child learning a new language. Instead, the determining factor is how much time they spend immersed in that language.

Many of us older language learners probably know this all too well. I could spend years trying to learn Dutch but if I only study or practice the language for 5 minutes a day it is going to take years and years (if ever) to get fluent. But even a creaky old brain like mine could learn a language in a year if I spent enough time using the language and got constant feedback on my progress.

Will My Child Ever Be Bilingual?

If you haven’t upped sticks and moved to a new country you may be wondering if your child could ever become bilingual. The answer is yes! But you’re going to have to work a little harder to give them enough language input to get them there.

You also need to take into account the age of the child for appropriate language learning methods which you can read more about in this post. Or read my Methods for Children to Learn a New Language post.

And Jane? Will She Ever Catch Up?

Yes! Jane will be fine. Just because she is not getting the same amount of Dutch input as Clare doesn’t mean she will always be behind. Because Dutch is the dominate language and she does spend a significant amount of time surrounded by the language she will learn it.

And language learning has a compound effect. Once you learn some, it is easier to learn more. Soon Jane will be at an age appropriate language level and be able to communicate in a similar manner as her Dutch peers. But, she will also be able to do the same in English. So when her classmates start learning English (which they already do once a week), it is Jane’s time to shine and help them learn.

Final Take Away

To summarize, the key to a child (or anyone really) learning a new language is the amount of input. The more quality language input, the faster the learning process.

So take heart! If your kids are on this fabulous bilingual journey there are ways you can help them learn faster and better but everything takes time.


It has been 2 years since this post was written. Both girls are still in their respective schools and doing well. Jane has caught up and is now at grade level for Dutch. Clare is also doing very well. In fact, a dutch parent recently commented that Jane has lost her accent and now sounds just like all the other kids. 
And now that they are 6, they have begun to read. Both Jane and Clare's reading is grade level in Dutch and English. And both girls have added a third language as well. 
Some children may need extra help in their language learning journey. I think it helped greatly that both girls are outgoing and confident which means they have more opportunities for social interaction which build language skills. Shy children can have a slightly harder time perfecting their language skills. 


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