Should Your Child Learn A Second Language?

Do you want your child to be bilingual? It’s something more and more parents are thinking about these days.  Let’s examine some common questions parents have when considering this idea.

What are the benefits of learning a second language at an early age? Can it be damaging to my child’s development in his or her native language?

Any long-term problems caused by a child’s exposure to more than one language have proven to be myth.  In fact, numerous studies have found many positive cognitive benefits to the development of children who are bilingual.  These kids have been shown to have higher standardized test scores in verbal, logic, and even math sections.  One study showed that bilingual students outperform all comparison groups and remain high academic achievers throughout their academic life.  A study by Cornell language researchers recently found that bilingual children were better able to tune out distractions while performing a task — a key skill for success in school.

What age should my child start learning a second language?

It’s long been theorized that there is a “critical period” of second language learning, during which time children learn language easily and end up sounding like a native speaker.  There is some disagreement as to when this time period ends, but most believe that by puberty, the chance the speaker will sound unidentifiable from a native speaker is greatly reduced.  Many experts agree that it gets more and more difficult to learn to speak a new language fluently as the child gets older.

Studies have found that learning a second language earlier can also help with learning a third, fourth, etc,, later in life.  Researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland found that “early bilinguals” use some of the same areas of the brain for aspects of language processing in their third languages as they did for their first two languages, giving them an apparent advantage over people who learned their second language at later ages.

Why learn a foreign language if we plan to live in an English-speaking country?

Business has gone global.  New immigration patterns have emerged.  The internet has brought us together in ways we never anticipated.  When it comes time for your child to find a job, fluency in a second language will most likely be an asset.  Being bilingual would be particularly helpful if your child wants to work in international politics, or in outreach programs that help people in need across the globe.

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Your bilingual (or multilingual) child can participate as a citizen of the world, with the tools to experience cultures in a far deeper way than someone who can’t interact in the native tongue of any other nations.

How do I decide which language my child should learn?

Perhaps you value the idea of carrying on a language that your child’s family speaks — maybe you would like your child to be able to converse with family members in their native language.  You might have an affinity for a certain country and language.  Or maybe you’re just practical: there are resources available for learning a certain language in your community, and you would like to take advantage of them.  Many parents try to guess what language will be most useful in the future world, but without a crystal ball, we can’t know for certain.

And remember — learning ANY language at an early age has shown to help the individual with learning more languages in the future.  So, regardless of the language you choose, if one day your child finds she has the need to learn another language, she may have a greater chance of learning it easily.

How do I teach my child another language?

Experts seem to agree: the best way for a child to learn a language is through immersion, meaning, they must be surrounded by people using that language and interact with them as much as possible.  Children are especially motivated to learn the language of their peers, which is one reason why an immersion school has such strong benefits.  In a full immersion school, students learn all their subjects in the targeted language, and are encouraged to speak to other students and teachers in only that language.

While many immersion schools are private, there are a great number of public schools cropping up around the country that offer language immersion programs.  If you can’t find one in your area, get involved!  Find like-minded parents and start lobbying for one.  Some parents have had success founding their own immersion charter schools.

Children undeniably learn language at home, from loved ones.  Your enthusiasm, your persistence and hard work will make all the difference.  Don’t pressure your child…make learning fun for both of you, and a part of your everyday lives together.  If you don’t already speak the language, you will greatly benefit your child’s language learning (and you!) by learning the language yourself.  Community center classes, informal conversation groups organized at meetup.com or local language societies, online learning resources like livemocha.com, and programs like Rosetta Stone can all help.

Here are some other ideas for your child AND you:

–Start a playgroup with other children learning the same language.

– Start a co-op preschool with like-minded parents led by a bilingual teacher.

– Hire a babysitter, nanny, or au pair who speaks the language you’d like your child to learn

– Check out language DVDs geared towards your child’s age from the library.

–Kid likes to play with your smart phone or tablet?  There are a ton of apps for kids that help teach other languages in a fun way.

–Check youtube or itunes for free audio and video language lessons.

–Make language learning fun with kid’s songs and stories in your target language.

–Take advantage of cultural resources in a local community whose population speaks the language — plays, library storytimes…or just talk to your neighbors!

–Watch films from countries that speak your language for great exposure to both the language and the culture surrounding it.

– Read books at your level for the same benefits.

– And, of course, if your situation allows it — enter a language immersion or English teaching program abroad and live in another country for a while. Or just visit as much as possible!

Have you or your child had success learning a second language? Any tips you can add?

About Olive

Olive is a mom "living the dream" in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs occasionally at Veganized.

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  1. The babysitter/au pair sounds like a good way to go. Not only will the child get childcare, but second language exposure as well. That’s two for the price of one. Learning a language in a practical day-to-day manner will probably be more effective than a classroom. After all, the utlimate purpose of learning a language is to be conversant with regular people, not to conjugate verbs!

    Something that often isn’t considered, at least here is the US, is that the economic and social landscape of the world is changing, and the possibility that a child could move to another country in adulthood is no longer unlikely. The poplution flows are going both ways, a trend that will probably accelerate with global interdependence, easier international travel and the internet.

    • These days, even if you stay where you are (I’m just outside NYC), having a second language under your belt can be so profitable.

      I recently took an online Spanish course for my degree, 3 semesters. You definitely need to be immersed to really get the hand of it.

      Also, my professor told us that if any of us were planning to go into education and really did well with the language that there were scholarships to Columbia’s teaching program available. Imagine that, learn a language and help pay for college at an awesome university!

  2. You’ve got to be kidding, right? Are there actually people who think that learning multiple languages will hinder a child’s learning? The more different ways we think, the better our brains grow. That is the most basic precept of learning. The more languages, the better. The more different the languages (alphabets, ways of thinking) the better. I am still sore at my parents, who between them spoke so many languages, that I grew up speaking only on and had to learn my second as an adult (when we don’t learn as well) and never did truly master my third (I can read a novel slowly and missing many nuances, but I can hardly speak it at all). My girls are growing up bilingual, and I wish we had the resources to give the more than the occasional command in the third language.

    • Man, I wish I could have learned another language when I was young. (Not that I blame the ‘rents, we were a one-language household).

      The more you can learn the better.

      • That was my situation as well, English only in the home. But I also came up at a time when the population was especially defensive about resisting foreign languages. The sheer mass of immigrants seems to be wearing down the faithful and forcing many to open to the possibility that immigrants aren’t going to leave and we just might be forced to live with them. Progress. Slow, but progress. And that means languages!

    • I agree with you but I do not agree with the idea of hiring a Spanish speaking Nanny to be with your kids from early months of life until they go to Kindergarten. Children need to learn English well first and then learn the second language interspersed. I have heard sad stories of children with learning delays because both parents HAD to work (NYC area) and children had a Spanish speaking Nanny…not good English. The hours of 8-6pm each day from ages birth-5 are so important…and now with Kindergarten curriculum being so demanding. Children must know all the letter, recognize them, and know all the letter sounds before Kindergarten. Also need to recognize numbers to 100 and count to 100 correctly in a minute. With those pressures for a four year old…maybe learning the second language can be just that…secondary. I think exposure is fantastic but not through a primary caregiver who’s primary language is your second language.