Photo Credit: Getty Images
Back when I was a kid, growing up in the 1970’s, it was a widely held belief that teaching a foreign language to a young child would lead to language confusion and result in that child becoming a “late talker.” Thankfully, today we know that research clearly shows that the younger your child starts learning a foreign language, the better. In fact, children who begin to learn a second language before the age of six or seven are more able to speak the new language like a native speaker than kids who didn't start until after the ages of six or seven. But how young is "too young?"
Kids can start learning a second language at a very young age.
There really isn’t such a thing as being “too young” to learn a foreign language, in the same way that it is never too soon for you to start speaking to your baby! The key to success, I believe, is language immersion -- offering your children an environment where they are listening to music and naming body parts, and engaging in play -- all in the targeted second language. The children are learning the second language by “living in it,” not through flash cards and memorization. Just as you might point to your nose and say “nose” in English, you can also point and say “bi zi,” which is nose in Chinese. If you already speak a second (or third!) language, share that language with your child from the beginning -- don’t wait! If you are not well-versed in a second language, you might want to consider attending a preschool language class with your child.
What is the “right window of opportunity” for teaching foreign languages to children?
Research shows that the most opportune time for a child to master a second language and acquire the ability to speak that language as a native speaker happens before the age of 12!
"From birth until puberty, the brain literally formats itself to perform various specialized functions, such as language, based upon the input it gets from the world," according to Linda Foust, author of Earlier is Better. "Neural networks gradually form, and they function more and more efficiently as they are used. If a second language is part of that input, networks for understanding and using it grow richer. Therefore, early exposure to a second language actually causes more connections to grow in a child's brain, and those connections, in turn, allow for easier additional learning in the second and first languages," writes Foust.
So if the best chance to learn is prior to age 12, then why is it that most public schools wait to begin foreign language instruction in the sixth grade or later?
Well, the issue is complicated. Most educators will tell you that the school day is already pretty packed with curriculum instruction necessary to meet state mandates in core classes such as English, math, science, social studies as well as physical education. In order to add foreign language instruction, it is likely that the school day would need to be lengthened, and of course funding increased to add teachers, the additional curriculum, and support staff. In today’s economic environment, this is a tall order.
What are the benefits of learning a foreign language?
Aside from the obvious answer of “we are living in a much more globalized society now and our children should be prepared for it,” learning a foreign language teaches diversity and respect for other cultures. Even better, studies have shown that children who study a second language score higher on verbal standardized tests conducted in English, and perform better in math and logic skills, according to Foust.
Which foreign languages should we be teaching our children?
Well, in my opinion, Spanish, definitely. But we should also be offering foreign language instruction based on where the global economy is headed -- so Chinese (Mandarin,) Arabic, and Hindi are all candidates for study. Unfortunately, few public schools in our country offer our children a chance to learn these languages. Many times the only option for parents who want their child to study one of these languages is to pursue private language schools or tutors.
I look forward to attending NBC’s Education Nation for the second year in a row where I plan to learn and discuss this and other important topics on the state of education in America.