International scholars at a conference held in Shanghai on the science of learning suggest an easier, more active way for children to learn a second language than traditional rote memorization in a classroom.
The answer lies in informal learning environments where students not only connect with real life but connect with it in more than one language.
English courses in China have long been criticized for what has been characterized as their dried-up teaching methods and absence of practical application.
Yet studies show that about 81.5 percent of a person's life is spent in informal learning environments. With that in mind, language learning should not be limited to a formal classroom or to a single language, the experts say.
"They should learn English through more active communication, rather than focusing on vocabulary and grammar. It is a way to learn multiple languages," said Dirk Van Damme, head of the innovation and measurement division of the education directorate of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.
"The ability to speak and communicate is very important. And bilingualism can help stimulate the development of the brain. Chinese students - at least those in Shanghai - are very capable in their second-language learning," Van Damme said.
Exposing children to a bilingual environment through informal study is important, said Cheng Kai-ming, a professor of Education at the University of Hong Kong.
"Learning has always been an essential part of human life," Cheng said. "Now we are living in a society with rapid changes, one that is already substantially different from the typical manufacturing base of the past. Therefore, it's prime time to reinterpret learning."
Another expert also saw the value of bilingual learning but offered a caveat.
"The human brain has a remarkable ability to reorganize its structures in response to differences in environmental and behavioral experience, such as educational, social and multicultural learning, or monolingual versus bilingual language learning," said cognitive neuroscientist Laura Ann Petitto, science director of the National Science Foundation's Science of Learning Center.
Bilingual exposure at an early age will produce some positive effects for a child's growth and learning ability, especially in the area of reading. But she also warned that if a child is exposed to two languages or two reading systems simultaneously, it may cause language delay and confusion.