Who is considered a heritage speaker? Heritage speakers are those who have been exposed to their heritage language (i.e., their first language) at home. They are introduced to a second language beginning at a very young age through contact with people outside their home or when they start going to school. Having grown up speaking two languages from an early age, heritage speakers are a great example of the important role that age and timing play in acquiring language proficiency.

How long does it take to learn a language and become proficient?

What is the ideal age to learn a new language?

Is there a time frame or an age at which you reach a ceiling for learning a language?

According to a new study, it may take up to 30 years to fully master a language—even for heritage speakers. Where, when, and how you learn a language are big factors in how proficient you will ultimately become.

In one of the largest linguistics studies ever undertaken, researchers set out to find out approximately when the “critical period” for achieving the highest level of grammatical fluency ends. The study, which was a joint effort between researchers at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Boston College, states that we retain the ability to learn language nuances well into our teens; however, we’re constantly improving our language for most of our lives.

If you begin learning a language before 10 years old and continue practicing your language skills, you have a very good chance of achieving a high level of language proficiency in that language. Your chances decrease significantly when you begin learning a new language after the age of 18.

The other important factor to consider is whether the language was acquired formally through a course of study at school, through informal conversations with family members exclusively at home, or through language immersion, which provides the best possible opportunity to become highly proficient. Heritage speakers have great accents; however, having an accent is not a great indicator for language proficiency, and it does not provide insight into the range of one’s language ability.

The length of time an individual has spoken a language makes a difference; in fact, the study shows a slight improvement (about one percentage point) in the grammar scores of people who have been speaking English for 30 years as compared to those who have been speaking the language for 20 years. These findings were consistent in both native and non-native speaking groups.

Although learning a language at home provides an opportunity to become bilingual, without a valid and reliable test, it becomes difficult to ascertain the level of language ability of heritage speakers.

Companies, academic institutions, and government agencies rely on Language Testing International (LTI) for their language testing needs. Each assessment is designed to properly determine the specific proficiency level of an individual, and ultimately to provide a valid and defensible language credential.

LTI works closely with your human resources department to identify the appropriate level of language proficiency required for the position you are looking to fill. Once your needs have been identified, we will help you qualify the right candidates with the language skills needed to be successful.

Call Language Testing International today for a free consultation on how companies are saving time and  money and hiring qualified bilingual talent.


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