“All children are linguistic geniuses,” said Glenn J Doman, in the context of multiplying a child’s intelligence. We see this effortlessly at work in our country, where children are generally comfortable conversing in at least two if not three languages – namely the mother tongue or state language, and second languages such as Hindi and English. That is, of course, provided we haven’t stopped them from speaking other languages in the fear that it will corrupt their English! Fact is, contrary to popular belief, not only does learning a foreign language not inhibit the child’s English language proficiency, it enhances and improves it.
While the West works so hard to make their kids bilingual, learning additional languages is a lot more organic and easier in India, where children pick up second languages without disturbing their language development. Children between the ages of 0 – 3 years learn effortlessly via exposure, repetition and hands-on-context, and as adults we need to stand aside and let that learning happen.
The earlier a child starts learning a second language, the better. While researchers believe that second language acquisition skills peak at or before the age of 6 or 7, others claim it lasts through puberty. However, the consensus is that it is much harder for a child beyond puberty to learn a new language. For most of us is it hard to believe that children aged three, who have not yet mastered their own mother tongue, are able to learn a second language.
Research conducted by Harvard University, however, confirms that the creativity, critical thinking skills, and flexibility of the mind are significantly enhanced if children learn a second language at a younger age. Preschool years, more specifically the first three to four years of life, are believed to be a crucial period in a child’s life, when the foundations for attitudes, thinking, and learning are laid down. During this period, children have a natural ability to learn which should be encouraged, as it makes learning a second language as easy as learning the first. As 50% of our ability to learn is developed by age 4 and another 30% by age 8, 3 is considered the right age to learn a second language.
Learning happens by sight, taste, smell, sound, touch and doing. Pre-schoolers can enhance their spoken English and learn a second language simultaneously through play, songs, fun activities, music, and stories. By seeking outside educational resources, and reinforcing the learning process at home, children can soon pick up a second language.
Expose young children to a second language via family members or help who are fluent in that language. Teachers can help by creating a positive learning environment, and be patient and empathetic. Remember to praise children for their progress which will reinforce the child’s desire to learn. Investing in language-learning software is a great option to help enhance a child’s ability to pick up a second language. Choose a kid-friendly programme available online which teaches via interactive games, videos, and quizzes. Signing up for foreign language classes are also recommended. Private classes would help children learn alongside their peers. Enrolling in extracurricular programmes conducted in a foreign language is also a great option. Singing, acting or even cooking classes conducted in a different language make for a language-immersive environment for children. Travelling to foreign countries or states or even a culturally-specific restaurant also adds to the immersive experience.
Learning a second language or a foreign language comes with multiple benefits…
Better brain development
Research has proved that bilingual or multilingual kids are considerably smarter, as the strengthening of both hemispheres of the brain occurs. Learning a foreign language actually rewires a child’s brain from a very young age. Using brain imaging, neuroscientists have observed that brains in bilinguals have more ‘grey matter’ in the area of the brain responsible for executive control. This part of the brain is believed to be built up by the mental effort of choosing the right language at the right time. Bilinguals thus perform better on tasks that require focusing, multi-tasking and creative problem-solving.
Learning a foreign language as a child comes with tangible benefits. Children who speak a foreign language perform better on standardized tests in math and English compared to those who speak only one language. Bi- and multi-lingual children start reading earlier, understand grammar better and the even better news is that the mental benefits last well into adulthood. In fact, thanks to the ‘mental reserve’ built up by bilinguals, the onset of dementia are offset by 4.5 years.
Exposing a child to a foreign language at an early age results in better fluency than if they learn later in life. Children’s brains are like a sponge and developmentally ready to accept and learn a foreign language. Naturally, fluency comes fairly easily, quickly and without an accent. Between ages 8 and 12, child lose the ability to hear and reproduce new sounds as they did when they were younger, making foreign language acquisition not impossible, but more difficult.
Better Interpersonal Skills
As language and culture are interconnected, foreign language learners show increased cross-cultural awareness. In fact in tests where children were required to understand another person’s viewpoint, those who had been exposed to a foreign language showed greater empathy. The very simple and basic fact that one thing has multiple names in different languages also helps children realise that there are different ways of looking at the world.
New opportunities are a by-product of being able to communicate with more people. Especially in a globally connected economy, bilinguals have better access to jobs. They also earn higher salaries. Students learning foreign languages have access to scholarships and study-abroad programmes to continue their language learning.
We have seen umpteen times how speaking another person’s language helps us connect more closely with them. Learning a foreign language enriches travel experiences for children, who discover the joy of saying new things and looking at the world differently. Children develop a love for learning and an appreciation for other cultures, thus growing up to be successful, contributing members of society.
Better Cognitive Benefits
Learning a foreign language comes with cognitive benefits galore. The concept of “object permanence” develops at a younger age. There is increased problem-solving skills, better critical thinking skills, enhanced creativity, improved flexibility of mind, better memory, superior multi-tasking abilities and mental flexibility and improved academic achievement.
Better Societal Contribution
Gaining fluency in more than one language can enhance a country’s economic competitiveness abroad, while maintaining its political and security interests, and promoting an understanding of cultural diversity within the country. Whether international trade specialists, overseas media correspondents, diplomats, airline employees, teachers, or customer service representatives, work is more effective when they can reach across languages and cultures. Thus developing the language abilities of students now in school will improve the effectiveness of the workforce later.
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