Each of us, no matter how old or successful, has things we wish we knew how to do. We wish we could speak another language, or change the oil in our own car, or play the guitar. It’s not that we aren’t up for learning these things now—more so even than when we were young—but it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, as they say, even when the dog wants to learn.
It can be a frustrating experience. Sometimes, when the desire is deep enough but the capacity for comprehension is not, it can even produce resentment toward our own parents for not encouraging or teaching us these skills earlier—when we had less going on, when our mind was more pliable, when we had the time.
The French philosopher Jean de la Bruyère (who we’ve quoted before) has spoken about the importance of laying the foundation for language learning in our children: “when the soul naturally receives everything, is deeply impressed by it, and when the memory is fresh, quick, and steady.”
That is, as early as possible. It’s true for more than just picking up française or español.
When we’re young our mental maps have yet to be fully drawn. Our neural pathways are still being carved. Our brains are lumps of clay waiting to be molded–by exposure, by experience, by accident, by parents. When we’re young, our view of the world has not yet been colored by the kind of preconceptions, desires, and passions that seem to define what is possible for adults. Kids aren’t tied down by the familiar and they aren’t yet burdened by the responsibilities that adults know too well. They can be excited easily with games, they are impressionable, they are not yet jaded, and, most of all, they have time. They have so much time.
You have to recognize that they are clay in your hands. You have to help them seize this window. You have to help them open their minds.
Jean de la Bruyère said that language especially will “clear the way for the acquisition of solid learning.” But so will dancing, learning to tie a tie, computer programming, drawing, piano, and a million other skills. More is better, as we’ve said before. Help them develop range. Let them learn to love not only the benefits of range but the pride of depth and the process of acquiring both.
It’s not too late. But earlier is better.