You may have heard that the mind of a young child is like a sponge; it’s constantly expanding. On a daily basis, a young child learns more about their environment and about themselves, begins to understand social cues and learns how to make friends, and stretches their mind academically as they learn to count and eventually read. Because of all of this, there’s no way a kid should be learning a second language, right? Wrong. In fact, children are the prime candidates for learning a second language.
For children in countries with two official languages—such as Canada—their physical location lends itself nicely for a child to become fluent in a second language. But no matter the geographical location, a child’s brain is better wired for learning a second language than an adult’s brain is. Because of this, if you want your child to be bilingual, you should start them while they’re young. Keep reading to learn about how children learn a second language.
How do Children Acquire Language?
Simply put, children acquire language (either their primary language or a secondary language) through interaction, whether that’s with their parents or with other children. A child who grows up surrounded by conversation will inevitably acquire the language that’s being spoken around them.
When Should my Child Start Learning a Second Language?
Within the first few years of life, a child’s brain is in its most flexible and malleable stage. It’s in this stage that your child will be listening and absorbing the language that they hear spoken around them. For some children, this will just be one language. However, bilingually exposed infants are actually able to detect a switch in languages as early as six months old. This means that they’re able to learn a second language as easily as they learn their first language.
The best time for you to teach your child a second language is anytime before they’re five years old. Up until this point, children benefit from flexible speech and ear muscles that are more in tune to detecting differences between the sounds of languages. The older a child gets, the less flexible these muscles become. Not only that, but as we age, we become more fearful of failure and making mistakes, and thus hinder our own growth when it comes to a second language.
There’s often a false assumption that suggests that learning a second language will negatively impact a child’s native language. However, when it comes to the way a child’s brain is wired for language learning, this simply isn’t true. In fact, learning a second language actually primes their brain to learn multiple other languages. Let’s explore some of the other benefits of learning a second language.
Benefits of Learning a Second Language
Problem solving and critical thinking
Research shows that children who learn a second language have improved problem solving, listening, and critical thinking skills.
Because a bilingual child’s mind focuses on switching attention from one language to another, this similar pattern can be seen when it comes to an academic or real-life task. Because of this, bilingual children are generally better problem solvers, have better concentration and retention, and can multitask more effectively.
Better academic achievement
How does bilingualism affect children's language development? According to studies, bilingual children actually do better in reading and writing than peers who only speak one language. But it doesn’t stop there. Bilingual children also tend to test better in math and across standardized tests, suggesting an all-around academic edge.
Nurtures a sense of curiosity
Bilingual children generally display a more positive attitude to the cultures associated with the language they’re able to speak. Because they create a positive association with learning a language, they’re more curious about the world around them, and can be more culturally aware and sensitive.
Prevents against Alzheimer's
Studies on the brain have shown that bilingual people’s brains last longer and function more effectively than monolingual individuals after developing Alzheimer’s. The disease is delayed by an average of four years with bilingual individuals compared to monolingual individuals.
The Challenges of Learning a Second Language
Although there are numerous benefits to bilingualism, learning a second language does come with its unique set of challenges. These are the most common challenges when it comes to a child learning an additional language.
Just because your child is experiencing a language delay doesn’t mean that they’re experiencing a speech delay. It’s important to realize that a bilingual child simply has twice the vocabulary to learn, so it might take them a little while longer to become fluent in one or both languages. Usually, bilingual children that experience a fluency delay will be caught up to their peers by the time they begin school.
Children who are learning to speak multiple languages may start speaking in sentences that utilize both their languages. Maybe they’ll start the sentence with one language and then finish with another. This is not a reason to be worried. The more your child grows to learn about the vocabulary and grammar of the languages, they’ll be able to intuitively separate the languages.
Difficulty with reading and writing
It’s one thing for your child to be a fluent speaker in a language that they’re surrounded by. It’s another to be able to read and write well in that language. Unless you are intentional about giving your child a full bilingual education, they’ll only be able to read and write in the language(s) that they’re taught at school.
This is great if the languages spoken at school are the same languages spoken at home (such as French and English in Canada, for example). But if a different language is spoken at home, the responsibility falls on you (the parent) to make sure your child can read and write in that secondary language.
Despite the challenges, there can’t be enough positive praise for children who grow up speaking multiple languages. Although it might be difficult to ensure that your child is getting a proper education in reading, writing, and speaking for that secondary language, just know that you’re providing your child with an amazing gift that will only serve to benefit them in the future.