Thursday, July 19, 2012

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Why You Should Teach Your Child a Second Language Now (guest post)

I thought you would enjoy the topic of the guest post.  I am strongly encouraging discussion of the idea of getting kids learning foreign language early.  ~A.hermitt

Monolinguals are fast becoming an exception to the rule. Whereas in the past, English was thought to suffice as a single language to unlock the hearts and minds of everyone on the planet, this is no longer true. Speaking a foreign language isn’t just a nice addition to a CV any more – it is becoming an almost essential commodity. An almost essential commodity your own children will soon require.

There was a time when teaching a child more than one language was discouraged. Doing so was only thought to confuse and disorientate, leaving them speaking a nonsensical hybrid of two languages. Fortunately, such myths have now largely been dispelled. Children learn far better at an early age because it involves little effort on their part, so there is never a better time in life to teach them a language. As the Multilingual Children’s
Association says on its website: “Considering how much babies have to learn in their first 3-5 years, another language doesn't really add much to the load.”

There is much scientific research to back this up. The brain’s synapses peak before the age of two, and in that time gray matter is more flexible (proved by babies who have had operations removing a portion of the brain before the age of five, and still recovered their language ability), so more willing to change to new ways of thinking. Additionally, infants have more perceptive hearing than adults, so can detect different sounds and pick up on linguistic nuances far easier than most of their elders.

The next wave of doubt that comes from parents is whether, in addition to all the other stresses and strains of bringing up a child, teaching them a second language is feasible. First, it’s important to realize the amount of effort involved; it’s less than you might think. Consider a child growing up in a multi-cultured family; in most cases the child assimilates both languages with natural ease. But why should bilingualism be confined to children in these families alone… perhaps multi-cultural parents have a marginally advantageous setup, yet not by much. Teaching a child a new language is a world apart from doing the same with an adult: the child will do the majority of the work (even if they do not realize it) and all you as a parent need to invest in is a few rudimentary learning tools and a willingness to speak to your child in another language from time-to-time. Also bear in mind that with Latin-based languages (such as French or Spanish), the child will assimilate vocabulary extra-quickly.

So what exactly are the benefits of having a multilingual child? By the time they reach school age, children who speak more than one language tend to be more engaged and engaging. As Temple University speech pathology professor Carol Scheffner Hammer claims: “Bilingual kids have better self-regulation, which will help them do better in school.” Knowledge of a second language also helps ease the child into varied environments, likely to make them more sociable, and therefore make friends easier. Skills like this don’t disappear either; these social attributes often last a lifetime.
Looking further into the future, the benefits only increase. According to, bilingual employees earn between 5 and 20 per cent more per hour than the entry-level pay for their positions. With more and more competition for overseas jobs too, the prosperous child of the future will, more often than not, be bilingual. In other words, teaching your child a second language now will win them a massive head-start for their working life. If you like, it’s a form of further education before they’ve even commenced formal education.

One of the greatest advantages of your child learning a second language is that it becomes infinitely easier for them to learn a third. As Sarah Spyrou of Yahoo! Voices says: “Bilingual children notice differences in expression, cultural influences and they can sometimes even see the origin of some commonly used words.” Of course, it may seem too early to be considering this, but the fact is that, just like a bilingual is open to more opportunities than a monolingual, so is someone who can speak three languages rather than two. Languages beget languages, which in turn increase success in life.

Aside from the benefits reaped by the child, there are benefits for the parents too. Those who didn’t know a single word of a language before they started teaching it to their child will find the learning experience as much of an education as the child does. And nothing can put a price on seeing your child’s language skills improve day in, day out. It is joint participation like this which helps strengthen the bond between parent and child.

It’s never too early for a child to begin with a second language, but is it ever too late? Well, the short answer is no – it’s always possible to learn a language – but from the age of around six or seven, the superhuman learning abilities of a child begin to wane, making it considerably less intuitive. “Brain imaging studies show that languages in bilingual infants are stored closer together in the brain than in later bilinguals,” says the Multilingual Children’s Association. When this so-called ‘critical period’ is over, the child’s brain becomes similar to that of an adult’s, which means that language learning will never be as easy again. Which is why the time to start teaching your child a foreign language is now.

Purna Virji possesses a talent for learning new languages with six in her present language-speaking repertoire. She is a former producer for an Emmy-nominated television show with a master’s degree in international journalism. She currently works at Pimsleur Approach, the world leader in the audio-based, language-learning program developed by Dr. Paul Pimsleur.


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