Why should our kids learn languages?
Speaking a second language is a wonderful thing to achieve at any time of life. There can be no doubt, however, that doing so as a child is a much less daunting, and indeed simpler, task. What can take an adult months or even years to learn can be processed and mastered at enviable speed by the flexible, absorbent brain of a child. Take riding a bike, skiing or reading - hone these skills in the early years and you won’t be held back by fear, inhibition or a natural reduction in gray cells later in life; these are skills for life that you rarely forget. As such, teaching your offspring a language at a young age – in a fun, interactive way – is nothing short of a gift that they can carry with them through life.
So, when is the best time to introduce a second language? Research suggests that teaching your child a second language before the age of 10 is ideal; before 5, even better. Not only will he or she show an innate ability to learn new words and develop a natural pronunciation, he or she will equally benefit from a distinct lack of inhibition which so often hinders us later in life.
Children brought up in bilingual households may be accustomed to both languages from as early as birth. Although this may hold back their initial progression with each, as the brain works to absorb two different languages at the same time, the benefits far outweigh this: in little time, the newly-conversant toddler will be understanding and responding happily in both tongues, knowing no different. Fluency will be achieved early on and the child will be left with not one but two sets of language skills that he or she is unlikely to ever lose.
Added benefits to language acquisition in the early years include more advanced gray matter (the part of the brain that processes information) than those who have not learnt a second language, and, even more tellingly, than those who learn a second language later in life - reflecting how a brain becomes less efficient at processing information as it matures and is exposed to more outside influences. Studies have also shown advantages such as improved school performance, better communicative and problem-solving skills, and higher marks on tests in the child's own language.
The advantages aren’t all academic either - children who are taught a foreign language naturally gain an understanding of, and become more tolerant towards, foreign cultures. In the global world that we live in, the value of this cannot be underestimated. A resume listing language skills is also likely to improve job prospects and earning potential – even more attractive when you think those very language skills were acquired when the person was so young that they were barely aware of the learning process.
If, as a parent, you are unsure how to introduce a new language, be reassured that the very nature of child’s play already provides the optimum environment for language learning. The subconscious interaction of little ones through play, games, songs and repetition provides the ideal foundation for learning a creative skill such as language. Story tapes, nursery rhymes and songs, word and picture cards, pen pals, podcasts and ‘foreign food nights’ are just some of the ways you can encourage language learning within your family.
So go on, bite the bullet and give your child the gift of a language – while it can be viewed as just another fun activity, and before it’s too late.
Sarah studied French, Spanish and Portuguese at university and her love of languages has taken her to many parts of the world, both for work and pleasure. She has traveled extensively throughout Central and South America, worked a few ski seasons in the French Alps and picked up some Italian and Japanese along the way too. As a mother herself, Sarah is passionate about language learning for children. Having worked for Cactus Language for over 10 years, she recommends Cactus' Under 18s courses which include summer language camps for children and teens: these are fully inclusive programs offering youngsters a safe, fun and truly international environment in which to learn a language with others of the same age. Cactus also offers individual language courses for children and teens in which the course is tailored specifically to the needs of the younger learner.