If you were one of those kids who struggled to learn a second language in your youth, you may be tempted to delay your own child’s experience as long as possible. Perhaps you think the task is too difficult for young children, and besides, what’s the point?
But shutting down that conversation without considering options could be a sad mistake, say a growing number of experts who think foreign-language instruction should start, well, early.
In fact, while many believe the ideal time to make that leap is age 6 or 7 (focusing mainly on vocab words and not much more), others, promising big benefits, say kids can start in the first few years of life.
Recent studies have shown that:
- Bilingual tots are better at block sorting and other executive function tasks, compared with same-age monolingual children.
- Bilingual kids are able to shift attention, switch between tasks, and solve problems more easily.
- Little ones who know more than one language can maintain focus better than peers who are monolingual, even around distractions.
- Vocabulary size for bilingual children, when viewed across both languages, is equal to or greater than the vocabulary of single-language children.
- Kids who are familiar with a second language may be more culturally aware, and more flexible with both real-time and digital demands.
What the Research Says
Recently, University of Washington researchers wrapped up a successful, innovative, experimental 18-week program in Madrid, Spain, that introduced Spanish-speaking children, (ages 7 to 33 months from monolingual homes) to English. Kids received an hour a day of intensive English language instruction in a play-based setting—without parents in attendance.
Commenting on the program, Rebecca Parlakian, senior director of programs for ZERO TO THREE, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes kids’ well-being, said, “This study makes it clear that it’s not necessary for parents to be bilingual for their babies to learn words in a second language.” Parlakian was not involved with the university study.
So what’s your next move (or moves) if you decide that learning a second (or third!) language is right for your very young child? Try these tips:
- Start early. Like now. Even if your little chatterbox doesn’t have his first language firmly in place, you can introduce a second language because his amazing baby or toddler brain is wired to work that out. Choose a language and begin with a few simple words—hello, good-bye, mom, dad.
- Tap multiple sources. Use your baby’s reading time to introduce her to the sounds of words used in a language other than the one spoken by family members in your household. For children two and older, look for age-appropriate story and picture books that are bilingual. Also, there are a number of apps that can teach you how to pronounce entry-level words and conversation starters correctly so you can model them for your child. Note: some are paid, some are free.
- Enlist the help of a sitter who speaks a foreign language. Cut a deal to boost her fee if she agrees to teach your child a few key phrases in her native language, dedicating 10 to 15 minutes to an informal and fun lesson on each visit, after a nap or before lights-out. Encourage your tutor-sitter to focus on words you use on a daily basis, including colors, numbers, formalities like please and thank-you, and short and simple phrases.
- Investigate extracurricular programs. Special foreign-language programs for very young children are increasingly popular. Hot languages today include Mandarin Chinese, Italian, French, Spanish, and German.
- Keep it lively. And make learning a family activity. Throw in foreign phrases when performing everyday activities. Use foreign-language words for colors, foods, and people. Use words and phrases you hear from others or pick up online.
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