Adapted from an article from Julia Gabriel Centre
When I went to school, educators believed that learning a second or third language was not possible until we reached secondary school. That was a very long time ago! Today we know that language learning is child’s play, as long as their parents and teachers create a supportive learning environment.
Most recent research suggests that children can become equally effective in a second or even a third language. In fact we don’t know the limit to the number of languages a child can learn.
Balanced bilinguals, those who are equally strong in two languages, tend to do better in IQ tests because they are thought to benefit from having their minds expanded, through forming more neural connections, early in life. So the advantage of learning more than one language as an infant is the number of connections in the brain that are formed.
Starting young: Baby talk
From six months in the womb, the foetus begins to group together the phonemes, or speech sounds, it hears in its mother’s speech.
After birth, the crucial time for developing strong language is in the first year because babies process language structure and meaning long before they begin to speak. Parents can support children’s early language learning by responding to their coos and babbles with speech sounds and words. By the time babies begin to put words together they have already learned the peculiarities of languages around them.
Children who are exposed to two languages from birth learn to speak both fluently. From six months, however, if babies have not heard particular sounds from individual languages, they will experience difficulty distinguishing them later.
When the first birthday comes around, children can no longer process speech sounds they have not heard, having learnt to ignore phonemic distinctions not necessary for their native languages. In fact, a baby’s babbling from seven months on is confined to sounds he has already heard in his own home language, or languages.
As time goes on adaptability decreases until, after six or seven years old, the window of opportunity for forming strong language connections is largely closed.
Children who are engaged regularly in early language and conversation will start, from around two years old, to outshine those who are not. Differences in ability and achievement can remain evident through school, probably because sensitive child-focused communication strengthens cognitive development and supports development of positive self-esteem.
Don’t worry about them being confused: recent research at Antwerp University shows that two and three year-olds are able to understand that they are using two distinct languages when they do so.
Languages are “caught” by young children who are highly sensitive to learning in a “contagious” language environment. It is totally natural for them to absorb the languages they hear daily because they want to communicate with those they love, their family members and teachers.
Children need exposure and opportunity to practise to become effective in a language. The key to making it easy is consistency:
- One person, one language. For instance, Mummy always speaks English, while Daddy speaks only in Mandarin (or Malay, Tamil, French or Japanese). Similarly, Grandma uses only one language.
- When both parents are together, there is one common, agreed language.
- Each teacher speaks only one language at school.