Great news for all of us, regardless of our age! Being bilingual, which historically has not been the norm in America, is great for your brain. For older folks, a second language can lessen the rate of decline in working memory, processing speed, and overall efficiency.
Of course there is a caveat: Not all developing brains will benefit from learning a second language. I personally know of kiddos who required speech and language therapy because their language development stalled when a second language was introduced. (And I have seen far more students quickly pick up a second or third language with ease.)
What about the issue of whether it’s easier to learn a language when you’re young? You know, the brain plasticity phenomena? Well, that argument can be countered by considering the conditions under which many adults try to learn a second language. For myself, trying to squeeze in the time and opportunities to practice a second language have doomed my efforts so far. I reached a point with Spanish where I could follow a sermon with minimal support. Right now? I shudder to think.
The conditions under which children learn a second language at home are typically supportive, allow for errors, and provide lots of practice. Learning a second language at school really requires expertise and educational leadership. Those once-a-week-30-minute “immersion” classes with songs about colors and numbers have not produced a generation of bilingual students. Teaching a second language requires competent leadership and community involvement, with a systematic plan for advancing student skills as they move from elementary to middle school and beyond.
As for special needs students, pulling them out to provide specialized instruction often occurs during “foreign” language classes. For students who are not communicating well in one language, that makes sense. And if those second language classes were truly effective, we wouldn’t want anyone to miss them.