During my time working at a nursery school in Japan, I frequently encountered parents who were concerned that teaching their children a second language too early would hamper their language ability. It’s not unreasonable to assume that, when young children are splitting their attention between two or more languages, they’re going to make slower progress in all of them, or even confuse them. Fortunately research has weighed in on the topic. It turns out that rather than slowing them down, raising children to be bilingual from very early on can give them some significant advantages. Here’s why, rather than wait to teach them a second language later, if possible, you should be raising bilingual kids.
It’s hard to deny the fact that having access to a second, or even a third, language is extremely helpful in adult life. It’s equally undeniable, though, that learning a language as an adult is an incredibly tough and time consuming challenge. With families to raise and bills to pay, it’s hard to carve out the time for daily study and practice. Young children and babies don’t have that problem. Their brains are sponges, constantly absorbing information about the world around them – and that includes language.
It may feel, to some parents, that when babies grow up learning two languages simultaneously, that they struggle to build fluency in either. According to Naja Ferjan Ramirez, a Research Scientist at the University of Washington, however, it’s not nearly as confusing to them as it seems.
In an article for The Conversation, Ramirez writes that early childhood is the best possible time for anyone to learn a second language. Possibly even a third or a fourth. Kids who grow up experiencing two languages from birth typically become native speakers of both, while adults usually have a hard time with second language learning and don’t often attain native-like fluency at all. This has to do with how our brains are wired for language from, and even before the time of our births.
Why can bilingual babies tell the difference between languages?
Research shows babies begin to recognise language sounds while still in the womb, as their mother’s voice is perhaps the most prominent sound an unborn baby hears. By the time they’re born, newborns can not only tell the difference between their mom’s voice and other voices, but even the difference between her native language and other languages! This is because by the time they finally emerge into the world, they’ve already learned to recognise the sounds that their mom’s native language utilises.
According to Ramirez, all the world’s languages combined comprise roughly 800 different sounds. Each one uses only about 40 language sounds, or “phonemes,” and these are a major factor in distinguishing one language from another.
“At birth,” she writes, “the baby brain has an unusual gift: it can tell the difference between all 800 sounds. This means that at this stage infants can learn any language that they’re exposed to. Gradually babies figure out which sounds they are hearing the most”.
“Between six and 12 months, infants who grow up in monolingual households become more specialised in the subset of sounds in their native language. In other words, they become “native language specialists.” And, by their first birthdays, monolingual infants begin to lose their ability to hear the differences between foreign language sounds”.
This low-key baby super power already sets bilingual babies up to learn and retain language far more effectively than the adult brain. A In order to learn more about it, along with her collaborators, Ramirez used a completely noninvasive technology called magnetoencephalography (MEG) to study how the brains of 11-month-old babies from monolingual (English only) and bilingual (Spanish-English) homes processed language.
Their findings found that by the age of 11 months, babies’ brains became attuned to the sounds that they hear on a daily basis – the activity in the baby brain actually reflects the language or languages that they have been exposed to, no matter how many there were. After that, it gets much harder to recognise and remember the phonemes from other languages.
How does raising bilingual kids give them an advantage?
One of the primary concerns I encountered when teaching English to Japanese toddlers, was that children who were exposed to two languages from birth started speaking later than other, monolingual, Japanese kids in their age group. Another was that by learning two languages simultaneously, they’d be delaying the fluency of both. Ramirez’s research shows that both these fears are unfounded.
“We found that the bilingual babies showed an equally strong brain response to English sounds as the monolingual babies,” she writes. “This suggests that bilingual babies were learning English at the same rate as the monolingual babies”.
Additionally, studies have consistently shown that bilingual kid’s do not lag behind at all when both languages are considered. In fact, when combined across both languages, the vocabulary sizes of bilingual children have been found to be equal to or greater than those of their monolingual peers!
Mark Antoniou, ARC Research Fellow at the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development at Western Sydney University, says parents who are feeling concerned about the rate of their child’s learning need only to wait it out. “Any lag in language development is temporary, so parents shouldn’t worry!”
He writes in an article for The Conversation that if they do appear to lag behind some of their peers on account of accommodating two language systems in one tiny baby brain, they’re likely to catch up in just a few months.
What often causes parents to worry is the way that bilingual children utilise “code-switching”. This is a speaking behaviour in which bilinguals combine both languages in order to communicate an idea. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise, as research shows bilingual children code-switch because bilingual adults around them do too.
Anyone who speaks two or more languages would recognise this tendency as a normal daily occurrence, especially when in conversation with other bilinguals, and nothing to stress out about. Antiniou says that “this is a normal part of bilingual language development and not a sign of confusion. Even proficient bilinguals mix their languages“.
“Unlike monolingual children, bilingual children have another language from which they can easily borrow if they can’t quickly retrieve the appropriate word in one language,” writes Ramirez. “Even two-year-olds modulate their language to match the language used by their interlocutor”.
Rather than being a problem, this ability to code switch may in fact be the beginning of the cognitive capability known as “bilingual advantage”.
Sounds intriguing right? Who wouldn’t want their kid to have every possible advantage?
According to Ramirez, research has found that bilingual adults and children demonstrate improved executive functioning of the brain. This means they can more easily shift attention, switch between tasks and solve problems. Bilinguals have also been found to have higher metalinguistic skills, which allows them to think about language per se, and understand how it works. There is also evidence that being bilingual makes learning a third language easier. Finally, the accumulating effect of experiencing multiple languages is thought to help protect the brain against cognitive decline due to ageing and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
So, far from what many assume to be additional challenges to children’s learning, teaching them more languages from very early on could in fact make their lives easier later on. It won’t confuse them, and it won’t hinder their progress in their native language either. In fact, in many parts of the world growing up bilingual or multilingual is the norm! No need to wait for high school to let them struggle through Mandarin classes – get them exposed to other languages sooner, so that they’ll have an easier time when they’re older.
I previously wrote an article about why we should all start learning new languages – It’s great for brain health, and it actually alters the way you see the world around you. If you’re not already convinced by the benefits of raising bilingual kids, think about the way having access to a second or third language can broaden their experience of the world as they move through it.
The advantages truly outweigh the downsides, and you can rest assured your children will thank you for arming them with a skill that can open so many doors for them. Plus, having your kids learn another language is a great way to keep you practising and learning it too. It’s really the gift that keeps on giving.