6 Reasons Why Children Should Learn Languages As Early As Possible

by languagelizard on September 27, 2011 · 29 comments

in Families,Schools

The research extolling the benefits of bilingualism abounds in today’s day and age. Bilingualism helps us better understand the structure of languages and can give us an in-depth view of another culture.  Bilingualism can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms. It can help people find jobs here in the United States and in other countries.

Although most of us in the United States don’t start learning additional languages until middle school or college, for some time now studies have shown that this is not the ideal time to begin learning new languages. In fact, recent studies are showing that the best time to pick up a new language is when we are very young. Rather than causing linguistic disorders or difficulties (as was once believed), being exposed to additional languages from birth is actually the best time to start.

Does this mean that we can not learn languages when we are older? No! It just means that if we are trying to decide when to introduce a new language to our children, the earlier the better.

Here are 6 fantastic reasons why children should be introduced to languages as early as possible:

  • Accent: It has already been established that children who learn a language when they are very young have a much better chance of not having a “foreign” accent when speaking another language. Research from a team at the University of Washington, which focuses specifically on childhood speech perception, has noted that as we get older, it is harder to pick up additional languages with native-like pronunciation. Thus, one very compelling reason to start children off with another language at a young age is to give them the gift of a native accent!
  • 10,000 hours: Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers argues that to learn something well, it takes at least 10,000 hours of time on task (based on a study by K. Anders Ericsson) as well as the opportunity to learn the given task. It is hard for an adult to find 10,000 hours to devote to language learning.  However, if we were to start in childhood, then 10,000 hours spread over a number of years (or a lifetime) doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Starting children early with language learning gives them this “leg up” that will help them succeed in mastering a language. Plus, using more than one language over a lifetime is the key behind the cognitive benefits of bilingualism that research has shown.
  • Enjoyment: Young children enjoy learning. They don’t care if an activity will improve their cognitive ability or motor skills. They just want to jump in and have a great time doing it. This same approach is true for children learning a new language. We would never try introducing high school students to a foreign language via children’s nursery rhymes, silly songs and hand puppets while sitting in a circle on the carpet. Yet, for young children, this is actually the best way to go about it because it makes language learning so much fun. It is amazing how quickly children will pick up a new language while having fun!
  • Undaunted: The wonderful thing about young children is that they will give things a try without necessarily worrying if it is correct or not. This applies to language learning as well. Young children will often jump right in to try out what they have learned without worrying about mistakes. They are eager to see the response they will get from other students and adults when trying out their new words and vocabulary. It is an exciting and empowering experience for children.
  • Support network: Young children have the opportunity for exposure and input from many different influences: parents, teachers, peers, and extended family. When both teacher and parent are on board with language learning, then children can be given language exposure, support and interaction all day long. A teacher can introduce words and songs in class while the parent further reinforces what was learned by offering activities and language exposure at home through CDs, bilingual books, games, videos and more. Plus, young children don’t have to deal with the difficulties of self-motivation that high school students or adults face when trying to learn a new language!
  • Unexceptional: Introducing children to languages when they are young helps them accept the fact that bilingualism and multilingualism are normal in our world. Speaking more than one language shouldn’t be treated as something out of the ordinary. It is simply a element of belonging to our global society. When young children are exposed to other languages and cultures at a very young age through books, videos, songs and objects, they will have the opportunity to feel comfortable growing up in a world where languages and cultures intertwine on a daily basis.

Today’s copious research should help parents and teachers feel motivated and excited to expose their young children and students to languages and cultures at very young ages. Although as much language exposure as possible is best, even a small amount can have tremendous benefits!

If your children or students are older, don’t hesitate to introduce them to a new language as well! It is never, ever too late to learn a language. In fact, language learning never ends! You can help your children and students start racking up their 10,000 hours today!

Photo credit: paparutzi

When did you learn your additional language(s)? Are you convinced that learning languages from a very young age is as beneficial as the studies claim?

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Nelson September 28, 2011 at 4:48 am

An interesting article and I could not agree more that teaching other languages is beneficial. However, both my young boys struggled with their speech and I was more concerned about supporting them with their first language.

Now that I am keen to start developing their second language skills they have large volume of literacy and numeracy homework to complete. The best way I can find around this workload pressure is to keep the language learning informal and embed it into everyday life.

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languagelizard January 10, 2012 at 3:09 am

Thank you for your comment, Richard. Yes, often families are dealing with other issues that take precedence over bilingualism. I know many families who found it difficult dealing with two languages at home when speech-language issues were a concern. But kudos to you to help them develop their second language skills! I couldn’t agree more: keeping the language learning fun is the key. We want our kids to stick with it but we don’t want to put on so much pressure that they end up hating it. Such a delicate balance!

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Myrna October 5, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Many years ago I heard this riddle, “What do you call a person who speaks one language? Answer: “American.” At that time (around 30 years ago) this was very true. Bilingualism was not widely accepted in this country. I can’t say that is true anymore. Living in Texas it is very necessary to know and learn more than one language. In today’s schools, our students and teachers are exposed to as many as 200 different languages in one school. What an advantage compared to years past. Our world today is small and seems to get smaller as technology advances.

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languagelizard January 10, 2012 at 3:12 am

You are so right, Myrna. In today’s day and age we can’t get away with not knowing other languages. 200 languages in one school – wow! That is an amazing diversity! It is surprising how often people forget this. Just because children can communicate in English doesn’t mean that they aren’t speaking other languages when they head home, or with their friends. I can’t imagine where technology is going to take us next!

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Spanish December 4, 2011 at 12:38 pm

I’m glad you mentioned Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hours theory. Many people say that children just soak up languages like a sponge, but I believe the fact that children have so much more exposure at an early age allows them to build things up slowly, and basically they just get more practice.

If the learning is fun and involved then children love learning the language. I used to teach children English in Spain in an after school class. They were so excited about the lesson because our academy made the lessons fun, with lots of songs and games. They saw it as a time to have a good time, while we structured the fun in such a way that they improved their English quite dramatically over a year.

Learning a language early in life should be encouraged, and I hope our school systems start introducing languages at an earlier age.

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languagelizard January 10, 2012 at 2:54 am

We totally agree with your comment! There are actually studies that show that adults can learn a language more quickly than children since adults have the added benefit of understanding how language works (grammar, syntax, etc.). What children do have over adults is their willingness to just try things out and see what works and doesn’t work. But in the end, as you say, it takes time and a lot of practice. Making mistakes is what it is all about (and children have an easier time not worrying about these as much as adults). Thank you so much for sharing!

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Music to Teach March 16, 2012 at 11:49 pm

I am glad to see articles supporting language learning at early ages. I have always been a huge supporter and proponent of teaching children multiple languages starting in infancy. The post by “Spanish” is so very true. My husband and I are speaking English, French and Spanish to our 5 month old daughter. We are also using language tapes and songs in other languages to teach her as well. The proof is evident if one asks their coworkers and friends, “How many of you can recall the nursery song Frere Jaques”? Everyone that can sing it, can also say they speak a little bit of French.

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jason January 29, 2013 at 1:35 am

My son is almost 3. My partner that my son and I live with is spanish. Do you think i should get her to speak lot of spanish around the house during the day? What is the best route to take as not to confuse him?

Thanks

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Isabelle Killian January 30, 2013 at 3:29 pm

I devoured your article! Your readers might be interested in using my books – they teach dialogues form everyday life…so easy to practice between parent and child!

They can be found at Tadasounds.com

Good luck to all the wonderful parents out there who spent time on their child’s language education.
Warm regards,
Isabelle

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Shane D. Taylor March 18, 2013 at 6:39 am

I loved the article. Thanks for sharing it. I’ve been teaching English on and off for 10 years now. At the moment I teach English in Indonesia where I live. I have taught in Taiwan and New Zealand too. I am really fascinated with how young students learn language. I’ve taught every Grade from kindy to Grade 12 except for Grade 9. What I have noticed is a big difference in language learning and learning pace between the young learners and the older. For example, in Grade 1, I see many students hardly being able to speak English when they start elementary school but by the end of the year they are not the same kids. The change is so remarkable. The change in Grade 2, likewise, is noticeable from the beginning to end of the year. However it’s not as profound as in Grade 1. In Grades 3 and up, I sometimes wonder what the students actually learned. I know they learned a lot but it is hard to see. I have to teach the Grade 1 students at a faster pace because they get bored if I don’t and they just devour everything.

I’ve done a lot of experiments over the years to see what works best for me and my students. I found that many text books are too simple and don’t give students enough to keep their minds happy. In Taiwan, I was at one school where I saw all these new students enter the school with great expectations…..they were going to learn English……2 months down the track the enthusiasm had vanished. This is because they wanted to learn English at a faster pace than the textbooks were allowing. We need to feed the hunger of young learners. What I always do now is check out all the English textbooks a school is using before I sign a contract. If the English curriculum is based on the books then I’m restricted with what I can do in a classroom. I therefore make sure the students will be able to learn a lot of English from those books.

I believe that many educators underestimate the learning capabilities of young children. I believe that many English programs are based on what the writers think students can handle. I now give my students more. For example if the curriculum states: teach the kindy kids 1-20, I’ll teach them 1-200. I saw 90 Indonesian students do 1 hour speeches in English last year. About 60 of who were in Grades 3, 4, and 5. 3 Grade 2 students also managed to do 1 hour speeches. The rest of the 1 hour speakers were from higher Grades. I just had a Grade 1 student do a 10 minute speech last week. This is a new record for our school. Ask students to do less and they will obey; Ask them to do more and many will try. My school is not an international school. It is a private school in a city in Sumatra…..Lampung. Give the students more to learn and they become fanatics. I couldn’t believe what I saw last year in my school. The experiments continue…..that’s the beauty of teaching…..we are free to try new things and be creative.

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Yvonne April 27, 2014 at 6:44 pm

Thank you so much for this article! I teach a second language and this article has given me a greater boost in motivation for what I do!

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Your Language Place August 11, 2014 at 7:01 pm

I totally agree – I really wish I had learned another language when I was younger. It would have given me a very cool extra skill as well as a considerable advantage in terms of school and travel.

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