Children learning a second language

Published: 10th December 2017

Learning a language as an adult is anything but a walk in a park. In fact, many find it to be an uphill battle. Contrastingly, this is not the case when it comes to children.

With our capacity to learn a language gradually diminishing over our lifespan, childhood has been proven to be the most critical period for language learning. This is due to the fact that children often soak up information like sponges. Hence, immersing young children in an environment where they are constantly exposed to more than one language has been proven to have many benefits in the long run.

So, can children learn two languages at the same time?

Parents often worry that teaching their children two languages at a young age would confuse them or delay their speaking abilities. This statement however, could not be more wrong. Research has shown that bilingual children meet major language development milestones at similar times compared to monolingual children.

This is because in early childhood, children are developing at an incredibly fast pace and start parroting whatever they hear in their surroundings. As such, if they are immersed in an environment where they have a decent exposure to other languages, many often grow up with the ability to speak both languages fluently.  

What are the benefits of learning a second language?

In an increasingly global world, children often benefit from knowing more than one language. Teaching a child a second language will help them expand their horizons and familiarise them with other cultures. In turn, they will have the advantage of seeing the world from different vantage points from a young age.

Further, research has found that learning a second language has many cognitive advantages. For one, it challenges children to recognise and negotiate meaning in a different language system. This ability to switch between different systems of speech and structure hence, hone their ability to multitask from a young age.

This improvement in the executive functioning of the brain can also easily be extended to other problem-solving areas. This is clear from the multiple studies showing that multilingual children have a tendency to score better on standardised tests compared to their peers.

Lastly, because learning a new language requires memorising new rules and vocabulary, multiple areas of the brain are often engaged. Consequently, this positively affects individuals’ ability to recall information. More importantly, there has also been evidence showing that this makes bilingual brains more resilient against aging. This is evident from multiple studies showing that multilingual adults experience the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia at a later age, as compared to monolingual adults.

How does a child learn a second language?

The best advice is to constantly expose your child to two languages from a young age. Ideally, experts recommend teaching them a second language when they are as young as two or three years old; as it is during this time period that children start to not only increase their vocabulary, but also learn to recognise speech patterns. Their ability to differentiate various phonetic pronunciations is also sharpest before age 3.

Teaching your child a new language does not need to be strenuous or academic in any way. Instead, create a casual learning environment for the child. Whether this is by telling your children bedtime stories in the second language or by encouraging them to watch television shows that integrate basic foreign phrases into the programme. For example, Dora the Explorer introduces toddlers to simple Spanish phrases, peppering Spanish vocabulary throughout the Dora’s adventures in a fun and engaging way.

You should also be aware that merely hearing others talk in the language is not enough. Practice makes perfect, and children need to practice speaking their second language in day-to-day activities in order to learn short words and phrases. If your partner or your baby sitter is able to speak a second language, a helpful tip would be to have that adult speak exclusively in the second language to your child. This “one-person, one-language” approach will ensure that your child has the consistency to learn the language in a wholesome way.

With that said, learning a new language is a process, so don’t set your expectations too high. Allow room for error and mix-ups, and always teach with love and patience. With enough practice, your child will be able to confidently converse in both languages with ease.

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