How children learn a second language
Years ago, it was thought that teaching your young child to speak more than one language at a time was confusing for them, even detrimental to their development. Thankfully, we’ve moved on in our understanding and now realise that the benefits of dual or multi-languages are multiple – and that the best time to learn is when you’re still an infant.
What are the benefits?
The human brain is incredible – not only do we absorb and learn new information, but the very act of learning can increase our cognitive ability to absorb even more! Infants who are raised with more than one language are proven to have higher cognitive capacity than those who are not; better memory, greater attention span and the ability to assimilate new information more quickly.
Bilinguals are also proven to be better at problem solving and even have a slightly improved grasp of mathematics. Oh, and let’s not forget that as the world gets smaller due to increased technology and easier travel opportunities, multi-linguals are increasingly popular in the world of employment. So really the question isn’t why would I, it’s why wouldn’t I?!
When to get started
Now! The book “Give me a child until he is 7” by John Brierly, is widely used as a resource for training teachers and it highlights just how formative the infant years of a child’s life are. Little brains are like sponges for information, learning naturally through play and fun and retaining that learning for a lifetime. This is why one of the best ways to teach your child multiple languages, is to introduce them in the home from birth. Don’t worry if you didn’t do that though, it’s never too late!
Simultaneous language learning
This is when the child learns two or more languages at the same time, growing up with multi-lingual exposure. It could be that each parent or carer speaks with the child in their own native tongue, or that a child speaks one language at home and another at preschool/school. While language is first developing, the child shows no preference and will learn each language at the same rate, however for this method to work longer term, the exposure has to be consistent.
Once a child reaches 6-8 months, he has learned to understand much of what we say – but if the exposure to one language is significantly greater than the other, the preference for speech will lean towards one language only. Therefore, if mum is speaking Spanish and dad is speaking Hebrew, it’s important that both parents share a roughly equal amount of communication with the child.
Being fully immersed in an educational setting where a second language is the norm, will almost always offer the greatest consistency. The child will speak Spanish at school during the day and Hebrew at home during the evening. There is no scope for developing a preference because each language is equally needed.
Sequential language learning
When languages are learned one at a time. For example, when the child has moved to a new country and is fully immersed in a local school, having not spoken the native language previously. This is arguably not as easy for the child as the previous method (and can be more influenced by their age and their social skills), but it remains entirely feasible.
At first the child might experience some confusion – their ‘normal’ language doesn’t work and they are limited to non-verbal forms of communication. Many children will go through a period of not communicating much but this doesn’t mean they’re unhappy, they are listening, absorbing and learning.
It’s a little slower than simultaneous learning and it’s likely that the child will start by picking up the odd disjointed sentence that convey their most urgent needs. Improvement is rapid though and most children who are fully immersed in a foreign language learn to communicate well within a few short months (compare that to the agony of learning a new language as an adult and it’s pretty impressive!)
What can you do to help?
Whether your child is learning a second language with you at home or picking it up at school, there are things that you can do to make the process easy and fun. If you are teaching the language, you will need to take the lead but if you don’t speak fluently, it can be just as beneficial to allow the child to lead and to teach you!
Songs and nursery rhymes
Singing songs together is fun – singing songs together is a different language is fun and beneficial. Whether you are teaching the child or the child is teaching you, the rhythm and cadence in songs and poems is a great learning tool. You can find nursery rhyme CDs and children’s songs in all languages (YouTube is a great resource too) and you can play these while you both sing along to help improve vocabulary and auditory memory.
Books are a great way to learn and reading them aloud is reinforcing that learning. Stories are a good way to introduce new words and phrases and also to practice pronunciation and verbal expression. If your child is old enough to read, have fun with this activity; give each character a different voice to keep the story engaging and take in turns to read pages out loud. Don’t forget to keep it entertaining; this is not about pointing out mistakes and making the child repeat phrases over and over again, this is about encouraging a love of words and letting the child explore the language in a safe and familiar way.
All the familiar family favourites – Monopoly, Risk, Cluedo, Scrabble and many more – are available in a wide range of different languages. The game and the rules are familiar, allowing play to start straight away, but the language on the cards and accessories is the one you want to teach or learn. Jump straight in and have fun trying to work it all out, it’ll be easier than you think and you’ll soon be familiar with all the game words.
Ipads, tablets and phones
Let’s be honest, modern kids are somewhat obsessed with technology and for language development, this can play right into your hands! Simply switch their device to the new language and see if they even notice! Many of the games and apps they enjoy will be so familiar to them at a young age that they know what is being said, so hearing it in a different language doesn’t make as much difference as you’d imagine – and they’re listening and learning subconsciously while they play!
With a little patience and determination, the above activities can be applied to children of any age and will help you out whether the learning is simultaneous or sequential. Older children won’t engage with nursery rhymes but might engage with pop songs or limericks (especially if they’re a little bit rude!), board games grow with a family and you’re never too old for a story! Make it fun and your child, whatever their age, will learn new languages quickly and easily – and might even teach you a thing or two along the way.