One of the most miraculous feats of human development is the ability to learn language. Beginning at birth, children are capable of accomplishing the complex task of learning language. The mystery of first-language acquisition is intensified when one considers a child can and will naturally acquire more than one language simultaneously when surrounded by multiple languages. Furthermore, they will learn second and third languages without an accent! The key, researchers suggest, is starting young.
An Early Start Results in Better Linguistics
Children, who grow up learning a foreign language from a young age benefit tremendously— not only do they learn to speak without an accent, they are able to learn and process language at an impressive rate. Children’s brains are developmentally ready to accept languages — fluency comes easily and rapidly. So, when is the ideal time for a child to begin foreign language study? Experts say, “The younger, the better”. Second languages do not cause language confusion or language delay. Children are born equipped to learn any language in the world; however, certain cognitive windows close before puberty. Exposing a child to a foreign language at an early age (as early as 3 years old) will result in much easier and better fluency than if they learn later in life. The younger the child, the more likely the child will attain native-like language proficiency. Parents of toddler-age children are enrolling their children in foreign language and full language-immersion preschools at an increasing rate—and these numbers are expected to skyrocket in the next few years.
Studies indicate that children who learn second languages can maintain attention longer, possess enhanced memory skills, exhibit more advanced critical thinking skills, and are more efficient multi-taskers than their monolingual peers. When a child knows multiple languages, both of the languages are active in the brain simultaneously. Children must learn to mentally separate them during speaking and thinking. By tasking their brains to switch back and forth between language systems, bilingual children become excellent problem solvers. They also have better memory and recall things more quickly. These cognitive advantages contribute to a child’s future academic success. Recent research indicates that simply thinking in a foreign language boosts critical thinking skills, helping people make quicker and wiser life decisions. Children who are bilingual also have an advantage when it comes to college acceptance. A study by the College Entrance Examination Board reports a direct correlation between foreign language study and SAT scores. The study indicates that bilingual students possess higher math and language skills (again, putting to rest the belief that foreign languages inhibit a child’s English language proficiency—foreign language study not only enhances, it improves it.) And, once a student knows two languages, they have greater ability to learn a third.
There is no question that foreign language study cultivates an appreciation for cultures other than one’s own. For children, it means the opportunity to directly observe a different culture. They can observe various cultures directly, rather than just reading or being told about them. This exposure leads to a more inclusive view towards differing cultures, which in turn makes children tolerant of differences and open to diversity. The ability to communicate conversationally with peers from other cultures broadens social circles and also provides a more expansive view of our place on the planet.
Social-emotional and Health Benefits
Bilingual children (and adults) evidence enhanced social and health benefits. Foreign language speakers demonstrate better self-control. The flexibility in thinking required for changing from one language to another also translates to flexibility in thought, making bilingual children more adaptable to change. These children also exhibit less negative emotions such as anxiety, aggression, anger, or loneliness. And, when it comes to the golden years, recent studies at the University of Chicago posit that a second language helps prevent dementia later in life.
In addition to the aforementioned benefits, when children enter adulthood fluent in multiple languages, they enhance America’s economic competitiveness, both domestic and abroad. Developing foreign language abilities now will improve the effectiveness and strength of America’s work force in the future. Bilingual students will have the ability to promote cultural diversity understanding within the United States and beyond. Domestically, industries such as healthcare, education, and government agencies are in great need of bi-lingual employees. Internationally, jobs in trade, business, and government, including diplomatic positions, are career possibilities. Foreign language study opens doors that would not otherwise be opened, providing access to resources, people, and places not accessible to those citizens without bilingual or trilingual abilities.
A foreign language not only provides a competitive edge in the workforce, it also shapes future employees that will create an inclusive work environment that promotes an atmosphere of cooperation, acceptance, and an appreciation for humanity.
Tips to Teach a Child a Second Language
As a child engages in foreign language study, surround him/her with more than one language through conversations, literature, and varied social groups— the earlier the better.
Expose your child to multilingual settings — give them ample opportunity to play with children who speak the second language.
When a second language is being learned outside the home, maintain the home (heritage) language.
Promote and participate in storytelling and reading in multiple languages.
Maintain a positive and express interest toward the languages and cultures children learn. (Remember, parents do not have to be fluent to provide support an/or learning opportunities).
Foreign language study is never wasted on children. Whether your child becomes fluent or merely learns enough vocabulary to communicate with others, the benefits are well worth the effort!