Foreign Language for Kids – The Earlier They Start, The More Fluent They Get, A Study Confirms
Have you ever wondered why you’re struggling with your Spanish, even though you’ve been at it for three years now? A simple ‘How do you do?’ is enough to make your brow furrow and your palms sweat. Well, you can breathe a sigh of relief because it’s not up to you!
A new study suggests that kids (especially toddlers) learn foreign languages much quicker than adults. The cut-off point for mastering the finer points of a language seems to be somewhere around the age of 10. If you can get your kid started earlier (preferably around the age of two or three), all the better.
Toddlers Learn A Second Language Faster, And Are Better At It Than Adult Learners
A study published in the journal Cognition was based on a huge sample of respondents whose data was collected in an ingenious manner. Similarly to how kids enjoy foreign language apps, adults just love online quizzes – which is something that researchers put to good use. An online quiz – Which English? – promised to guess the variant of the English language the participant spoke in while collecting the needed demographic and study-related data. The ultimate goal was to assess at which point in life our natural ability to learn a new language diminishes, sometimes to a level where it becomes a real struggle.
The results were somewhat surprising. Even though scientists have long suspected (rightfully) that kids learning a foreign language from an early age perform better at it later in life, it was an assumption that was hard to prove. Well, until recently. Here are the study conclusions:
- The ability to learn a second language tapers off significantly after the age of 18 – people who start later struggle with basic grammar.
- Only people who started learning a foreign language before or at around the age of 10 could expect to become grammatically fluent.
- There’s one thing that beats learning at a younger age and that’s total immersion – participants who have lived in a foreign country picked up the language much faster, regardless of their age (although, those who started younger had better results).
Thanks to the large pool of participants (around 240,000 non-native English speakers), researchers are convinced that they have accurate and telling data. This doesn’t mean that learning a foreign language is impossible as we get older – most of us do exactly that. Still, adult learning is not easy and there seems to exist a special relationship between toddlers and foreign languages.
If you think about it, nothing else would make sense.
Consider how you learn. On top of everything else you have to deal with (from thinking about the bills to solving world problems quietly in your head), you now have to devote significant cognitive resources to mastering a new language. You draw on all of your problem-solving skills; mnemonics, rhymes, associations, and good, old cramming – and you often fail, or succeed with great difficulty. Petitto and Dunbar, renowned cognitive neuroscientists, write about just how much of a grind this is in their paper published in Educational Neuroscience.
On the other hand, babies learn a foreign language instinctively since they can hardly draw on any problem-solving skills at that stage of their development. An acclaimed professor of linguistics, John T. Lamendella, wrote a paper about that nearly 40 years ago, saying that kids learn a new language ‘through perceptual and affective channels that become integrated with the limbic system’. In layman’s terms, babies are just wired that way.
Since, apparently, kids can pick up a second language with an inherent ease, it’s almost a crime not to expose them to one early in life.
Which begs the question: shouldn’t school be doing this? They should, but they don’t.
Benefits of Learning a Second Language At an Early Age
Unfortunately, there isn’t a country-wide school system in the world that’s doing this right. This is understandable, to an extent. Teaching a toddler a second language is exhausting, and primary school teachers aren’t equipped to handle the massive amount of individual work that this requires. There are private schools (and even nurseries) that promote language learning from an early age, but nothing on a scale.
So it falls down to you, the parents, to give your kids a leg up by teaching them a foreign language while they are still toddlers. It’s difficult, but it’s also very rewarding. Here are a few benefits of learning a second language from an early age:
- Mastery of a language – as the mentioned study notes, your kid is much more likely to become a proficient speaker if they are exposed to their second language early on. They will have a richer vocabulary and a firm grasp of grammar and syntax.
- Improved cognitive skills – these skills include problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity, among other things. Studies have concluded that children exposed to foreign languages have these skills hyper-developed later in life.
- Bilingual children have better social skills. – learning a new language develops a whole new set of skills, one of which is the ability to view things from a different perspective. Bilingual babies play better with others and become more emphatic adults.
- Higher academic achievement – if your kid is already speaking a foreign language in primary school, studies show that it has a better chance of getting above-average results on standardized tests.
- Bilingualism can protect against cognitive impairments – while Alzheimer’s disease is nothing that a toddler needs to worry about, it’s never too early to start taking precautions. Scientists have found that learning new languages can protect against cognitive diseases, and even slow down their progress. Make sure your kid is learning a foreign language as early as possible – a habit like that will ensure that they grow into a healthy adult.
Like we said, if you want an early start but don’t have institutional support (bilingual nurseries or schools), you will have to take matters into your own hands. Fortunately, there are things that you can do at home, taking baby steps, that will help your toddler learn a foreign language.
How To Teach Your Child a Second Language
- Hearing is learning – children have a pronounced ability to pick up and learn different sounds until the age of three. This is crucial for fluency in some languages, so keep in mind that you have to get an early start.
- Immersion is key – if you or your partner speak a foreign language, make sure you use it around the child. If you’re monolingual, hiring a bilingual babysitter can help a lot. Encourage that person to speak to your child in the target language, teaching them how to say the words they already know in another language.
- Encourage diverse playdates – try to make learning an interactive experience. One way to do it is to encourage bilingual playdates. If you’re friends with people whose kids speak your target language (the one that you’re trying to teach), prioritize those playdates. Your child will get used to an environment that’s not monolingual and will learn – at the very least – several ways of naming the same toy.
- Augment learning with foreign language apps for kids – there’s nothing that a child loves more than a shiny new smartphone, right? We’re all guilty of occasionally using them as pacifiers. However, you could choose to avoid that cop out and instead invest in a foreign language app for kids. That way, you get some peace and quiet, and your toddler gets to learn in a new, fun way. Apps like Zoolingo also give you a chance to access hundreds of teaching games, all ready for when you’re running out of ideas.
Bilingualism Takes Effort, But Your Child Deserves It
You’re probably asking yourself: ‘Can toddlers learn a second language? Really learn it?’
Of course they can. There are literally millions of kids growing up in bilingual households. It’s a process, and it does take some time, but soon enough, your toddler will be making great progress in two languages! And a happy toddler equals happy (and proud) parents.
You can give your child a head start by refusing to use a smartphone simply as a pacifier, like most parents do. Instead, download the Zoolingo app and spend quality time together, learning the numbers and the alphabet in more than 12 different languages. Take advantage of the app’s trial period to test all the features and to see how your kid likes it. With Zoolingo, kids learn foreign languages faster – and we guarantee that you will pick up a few new things as well!
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