Thanks to all who participated in this discussion on the topic of giving your preschooler the gift of a second (or third or fourth) language! I offer this final cheat sheet of ideas and resources you can use to inspire more conversation and spark new ideas to help you expose your child to languages.
I offer the following tips and suggestions to parents interested in giving their child exposure to another language:
Read about the research. We need more studies to learn about the intricacies involved in the process of acquiring multiple languages and how that relates to various aspects of intellectual and social development. However, we do know that a baby does hear and learn language patterns while in the womb, can easily identify their mother’s voice at birth, and show a marked preference for language that mimics the patterns spoken by the mother. They even develop a characteristic cry (rising or falling) depending on the language they heard in the womb. In addition, babies can tell when a new language is being spoken not only be listening but by merely watching the mouth of the speaker. They are remarkably attuned to sounds in general and that is why exposing them to a second language (if they haven’t been hearing one already) by the age of ten months can make a significant difference in their ability to recognize and mimic distinctive sounds later.
There are several research centers in North America that are devoting a lot of resources to studying language acquisition in infants and young children. Rather than cite a lot of individual studies, I’ll just share the links to the center websites so participants here can read the articles that are most relevant to them.
Dr. Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington’s I-LABS (Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at http://ilabs.washington.edu/) is my personal favorite—she’s the one who has done the most work on infants and second-language exposure. She did a wonderful TED talk on the subject—you can watch that at https://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies
In addition to the research at I-LABS is the Infant Studies Center at the University of British Columbia (see http://infantstudies.psych.ubc.ca) Dr. Janet Werker is doing some interesting studies with babies and toddlers. There is also a lot of great work coming out of the U Penn’s Infant Language Center (https://www.sas.upenn.edu/psych/infant/home.html)
Another researcher to check out is Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a neuroscientist working out of York University in Torontol. She’s been studying bilingualism for forty years. Perhaps you caught this article in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/31/science/31conversation.html. She is the one doing research on aging adults and how bilingualism reduces or delays the effects of Alzheimer’s.
There are several ongoing studies looking into the links between bilingualism and creativity. One report that gives a good idea of the seeming advantages (and the difficulties inherent in assessing creativity) is https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3212749/.
Some Google searching can help you find a wide range of studies on how bilingualism may affect compassion and social development.
Learn about the stages of language development. There are very clear demarcations in the stages of language learning. The first key stage is the first year of life (actually prior to the tenth month). This is the period of time when babies are literally sitting ducks—they are not yet mobile (for the most part) and are simply listening and absorbing all the sounds (and of course, visual stimuli as well) around them. They cannot yet speak but can mimic sounds (mama, baba, etc.). For years, scientists were under the mistaken impression that not much language learning was going on prior to the development of speaking—at about 18 months. Now, however, we know that a LOT is going on earlier and that in fact, this early stage is extremely important for listening and categorizing sounds as “native” and “non-native” or “other.” It’s as though they are actually creating different files in the brain and sorting sounds into one or the other.
One thing is clear: there should be a dominant language, an unquestionable mother tongue. Many parents try very hard to present a perfect balance between the two languages, but early research indicates that without a clear strong primary language, children growing up in a bilingual environment are more likely to experience speaking and other developmental delays in one or both languages. (However, it’s also clear that most make up for lost time by around the age of eight and surpass their monolingual peers in a number of areas.) A third or fourth language is not that important at this stage and may be confusing only in that it means the main language is heard less often---what matters is having the chance to distinguish between the main language and all others.
Around the first birthday—typically coinciding with a baby’s first steps—there is a shift toward motor development. Listening is lower on the list. As a result, the language learning capacity takes a dip from its original all-systems-go stage.
Then around the fourth birthday, there is another significant dip in a child’s ability to assimilate and make sense of more than one language. Prior to four, young children can rather seamlessly hear and interpret different languages in context. They may mix words (but this is also true of monolinguals) or verb tenses, etc. but they are very actively absorbing new vocabulary and the key is to give them plenty of it and offer it in a relevant context, speaking naturally and without reliance on screens.
Prior to about age three, language learning requires face-to-face interaction with the speaker. Studies have shown again and again that screen time—television, DVDs, etc.—may appear to be engaging the little ones, but most of that is simply visual stimuli. They are not absorbing the subtleties of language nor are they receiving cues by mimicking a sound and having the speaker respond positively or present the same sound more clearly.)
The next big dip in language acquisition comes around the age of seven. At that age, many children are making a shift from a fairly balanced left/right brain learning style to one that becomes increasingly left-brain focused. So, rather than learning a language through songs, games, drama, touch and movement—all through interaction with others and mostly play—they shift toward the style of language learning that older kids and adults use. By that, I mean that language becomes more about vocabulary lists, flashcards and grammar than about the natural process of communicating with another person in a relevant way (asking for a toy, hearing a story, answering a question in conversation, etc.) There are some kids who maintain a good balance between right and left or even remain quite right-brain focused, but the majority adopt a more linear and logical way of sorting and storing information. This is, not coincidentally, what happens when they enter school because the instruction tends to be teacher-directed with students often listening rather than participating actively in their own learning. (A generalization to some degree, but I think you see what I mean.)
So, if you have a nine-year-old, you’re likely to enroll him in an after-school or weekend class in language that will include some interactive games, some flashcards, some homework, some audio lessons, etc. They are not likely to be interacting with other kids who speak the language they are trying to learn simply because those kids wouldn’t be taking that class! This is why immersion is so far superior in terms of results: a group of students all sitting at desks listening to a teacher to learn a language together—whether in first grade or in college—just doesn’t offer the chance to communicate one-on-one with native speakers, and that’s how the subtleties are learned. An immersion setting—whether informal (you’re surrounded by everyone speaking another language) or formal (a class structure with several native foreign-language speakers) gives students a chance to hear and communicate with more than one native speaker—the same way you learned your mother tongue.
Just so you know, the next two dips in language acquisition are at around age 12, then again at age 17 or so, then it pretty much tops out by the age of 25. In my book, The New Global Student, I talk about the adolescent brain and how there is a last sweet spot at around the age of 15/16 during which language learning is fairly effortless in an immersion setting. That’s one reason I promote high school exchange programs as an outstanding way to not only learn a language but turbo-charge the brain for cultural learning. That intense learning becomes hard-wired in the brain and it is likely to affect them profoundly in ways it would not if they waited until they were 18 or 20 or 22 to go abroad.
Know the options available and which might be best for your circumstances. There’s nothing like having a native foreign language speaker in the home to ramp up the language learning right from the very beginning. But most of us are English-speaking parents without that advantage, so the first question is which language to choose and how to expose our children to it. The answers can vary dramatically, but I have a few thoughts on how I’d approach it if I were pregnant right now.
Here’s my ideal plan if I were a parent in the United States today:
1) If I didn’t have a foreign-born spouse who speaks a language besides English and didn’t have any family ties or cultural links to a particular language, I would make sure my baby had exposure to Mandarin Chinese. Hiring a Chinese nanny or babysitter for the first year or two of life would be most advantageous. The point here is not so much that China will rule the world (true or not) but that Mandarin is a tonal language and one that is very different phonetically. It becomes harder and harder to distinguish between different sounds as we get older, so at the very least, I would try to mimic my Lucky Baby program: I’d make sure my six-to-nine-month old had a chance to interact with a native Chinese speaker for at least 30 minutes, three times a week, for at least one month of consecutive sessions.
Budget option: hire a Chinese university student to babysit three times a week for an hour. You can still be there—in fact, that’s a must—but all talking should be from the student and in Chinese only. Seriously, you can get the same benefits as having a Chinese nanny if you focus on the key stages of development and provide the minimum exposure necessary.
2) I would enroll my child in a Spanish immersion preschool. Spanish is quickly becoming an American linguistic reality, so giving my child early exposure to Spanish would be very smart. It’s not a difficult language to learn compared to many others, the writing is nearly identical, and it’s a very useful language throughout North/Central/South America. That’s the best bang for your buck and it’s pretty accessible anywhere in the United States.
Budget option: join a playgroup comprised of entirely Spanish-speaking children (at a local community center, for example). Getting kids to play together in a setting in which they have no choice but to use the target language guarantees that they will learn it without intervention from you or anyone else. Will they become fluent this way? Well, that depends on how much time they spend with Spanish-speaking kids. I know many families who have spent a few months in Central or South America with their preschooler and have been stunned to find that the child picked up the language very quickly just by playing with kids at a local park or preschool.
3) With the basics of Chinese in the brain and a command of Spanish, I’d sign up my elementary-school aged child for classes in written Mandarin. I’d make sure it was a fun class with a focus on the joy of finding the little pictograms embedded in each character. This would be a way for my child to restart the exposure to Mandarin sounds and see if they are interested in continuing to study the language. If not, I wouldn’t push it.
4) If I had the means, I would travel with my children whenever possible after the age of 2. If budget is an issue (and it always is), I’d choose longer stays in a foreign country rather than more trips to various places. If possible, I’d go to a place in which my child could hear/use the language they are learning.
5) I would host a high school student from abroad or rent a room to a foreign college student studying at a nearby university. I’m convinced that the early exposure to other languages our kids had due to the foreign students in our home gave them a huge advantage when they later studied other languages. Most people don’t think about hosting a student until their own kids are in high school, but having a beginning English learner in your home when you have preschoolers or elementary school students can really give your kids a wonderful sense of another place and another language. Don’t worry about trying to speak only English to the foreign student—it is natural to translate and use gestures at this level of learning and this is good for your family AND for the student. (It’s also great fun!) Our lives were enriched greatly by the relationships we had with the many students who lived in our home over the course of nearly 12 years and we continue to stay in contact and swap visits.
6) I would send my child abroad on a high school exchange when they are 15 or so, and possibly a summer abroad when they are around 13 or 14 (depending on the kid.)
7) I would encourage my child to spend some time traveling on their own (or perhaps with one friend) when they are 18 or 19. A summer abroad would be good, but a gap year abroad would be better. (Yes, even if they spent a year abroad at 15.)
8) Spending a year or more attending a college in a foreign country is another option. It’s not as daunting as you might think—my second daughter took classes at six universities in four countries in three languages and still managed to graduate by the age of 20! (She wrote the how-to-transfer-credits bit in my book.) And the total price? Less than a typical year at a private university in the U.S.—travel included!
9) Connect with other families who are making language learning and time spent abroad a priority. There will be plenty of people who express concern or even criticize you for exposing your child to multiple languages or taking/sending them abroad. Rather than getting bogged down by their fear, seek out those who are encouraging!
10) Remember that it’s still possible to learn later in life. Sure, it’s not as easy, but I’m here to tell you that you can discover entire new ways of living and learn new languages all through life. I know people in their seventies and eighties who are moving to interesting places and learning new languages for the first time in their lives! So, don’t think you’ve screwed up if your kid is 5 or 10 or 15 and still solidly monolingual—and don’t give up on yourself, either.
How much should you push your child to learn a language? My philosophy has always been to expose my kids to different lifestyles, cultures and places. Period. I never had any master plan about language learning—what mattered most to me was that my kids were excited about learning and discovered the thrill of discovery for themselves. They didn’t have to be good at everything or like everything---I wanted them to be able to recognize when something really lights them up AND when they just aren’t into it. (Believe it or not, this is a critical skill that could save you a ton of money on college tuition and years of angst later.) If you give them that spark of excitement about learning a language early on and then let their curiosity guide them, I think it’s more likely they will seek out opportunities to continue learning.
The key to exposing your preschooler to languages is to keep it fun, light-hearted and full of excitement. Steer clear of flashcards or DVDs until they are older than 3, read tons of stories to them in any language you can, and give them a rich learning environment in which to play.
On the topic of additional benefits of learning more than two languages: the jury is still out in terms of brain or other developmental benefits, although it’s clear that it’s an advantage to learn ANY language in terms of communication and cultural understanding. There are very few published studies on this topic, but I am in touch with some researchers who are now conducting studies on how learning multiple languages simultaneously may be beneficial (or not).
Thank you so much for being a bold and loving parent! All kids need an informed advocate and wise mentor, and I applaud you for taking the time to learn about the best ways to give your child the gift of another language.
Best wishes and happy trails!
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