A very long time ago, educators believed that learning a second or third language was not possible until students reached secondary school! Today, we know that language learning is child’s play, as long as their parents and teachers create a supportive learning environment.
Most recent research suggests that children can become equally effective in a second or even a third language. In fact, we don’t know the limit to the number of languages a child can learn.
Balanced bilinguals (those who are equally strong in two languages) tend to do better in IQ tests because they are thought to benefit from having their minds expanded, through forming more neural connections early in life. So, the advantage of learning more than one language as an infant is the number of connections in the brain that are formed.
Start with baby talk
From six months in the womb, the foetus begins to group together the phonemes, or speech sounds, it hears in its mother’s speech.
After birth, the crucial time for developing strong language is in the first year because babies process language structure and meaning long before they begin to speak. Parents can support children’s early language learning by responding to their coos and babbles with speech sounds and words. By the time babies begin to put words together, they have already learned the peculiarities of languages around them.
Balanced bilinguals (those who are equally strong in two languages) tend to do better in IQ tests because they are thought to benefit from having their minds expanded, through forming more neural connections early in life.
Children who are exposed to two languages from birth learn to speak both fluently. From 6 months, however, if babies have not heard particular sounds from individual languages, they will experience difficulty distinguishing them later.
At their first birthday, children can no longer process speech sounds they have not heard, having learnt to ignore phonemic distinctions not necessary for their native languages. In fact, a baby’s babbling from 7 months on is confined to sounds they have already heard in their own home language or languages.
Expose your child to languages consistently
As time goes on, adaptability decreases until, after 6 or 7 years old, the window of opportunity for forming strong language connections is largely closed.
Children who are engaged regularly in early language and conversation will start, from around age 2 to outshine those who are not. Differences in ability and achievement may remain evident through school, probably because sensitive child-focused communication strengthens cognitive development and supports development of positive self-esteem.
Don’t worry if they are confused. Recent Antwerp University research shows that 2- and 3-year-olds who use two distinct languages are able to understand this.
Young children who are highly sensitive to learning in a “contagious” language environment will “catch” languages. It is totally natural for them to absorb the languages they hear daily because they want to communicate with those they love, their family members and teachers.
Children need exposure and the opportunity to practise to become effective in a language. The key to making it easy is consistency:
* One person, one language. For instance, Mummy always speaks English, while Daddy speaks only in Mandarin (or Malay, Tamil, French or Japanese). Similarly, Grandma uses only one language.
* When both parents are together, there is one common, agreed language.
* Each teacher speaks only one language at school.
This story is adapted from a Julia Gabriel Centre article.
Photo: Abbott Family
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