Bilingual Baby – Why so important?

You may have noticed many parents raising their children bi- (or even tri-) lingual, either by speaking a different language at home or having a foreign language spoken by a care provider. It used to be, however, that parents were told not to expose children to two languages, thinking that it might confuse or slow down their verbal skills. These days most experts agree that the developing mind can easily handle the double input. And research is beginning to show that, in addition to the linguistic benefits, learning multiple languages might provide valuable mental exercise for kids that could have positive long-term effects.

 Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign-language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics, in Washington, D.C. says, “There’s definitely been a grassroots push for more bilingual education in preschools.” Exposing your child to a second language will help him learn about other cultures. Research has shown that bilinguals tend to be more creative thinkers than those who speak one language, and one study suggests that their brain functions may stay sharper as they age. By speaking two languages it delays the average onset age of dementia by four years, leading researchers to attempt to understand how it sharpens and protects our thinking.

 Challenging the Brain — in a Good Way

There’s reason to think that learning two languages could increase certain critical brain functions. Studies have shown that kids who grow up with two languages are better at certain tests of “executive function” — a crucial skill that allows us to pay attention, focus, plan, and decide. Executive function is one of our most advanced and complex human abilities. It takes a long time to fully crystallize (it’s still a work in progress into our early 20’s, which is why even college grads don’t always seem to have the best judgment). Young children who learn second languages often score higher on standardized tests, such as the SAT. “Since 50% of the verbal portions of the SAT tests measure a child’s knowledge of root words, studying Latin based languages (such as Spanish, French, and Italian) gives a child a tremendous start building the inventory of words’ roots they will need to achieve high SAT scores,” explains François Thibaut, director of the Language Workshop for Children, in New York City.

You may be thinking “When should I start?”

Well consider this, for the first six months of life, most babies are experts at distinguishing sounds — a Japanese baby can tell the difference between “r” and “l” — a feat which will become much harder as she grows into a Japanese adult. And English-speaking babies can discriminate between certain German or Swedish vowels, or the Spanish “b” and “p,” where English-speaking adults struggle.

Amazingly, after the first year of life, this finely tuned ability goes away as children start to specialize in their local language only. But even though the optimal window for becoming bilingual (with the ability to sound like a native in both languages) coincides with preschool, the flexibility to learn new words continues throughout childhood.

The preschool years are when we see our children’s budding capacities for executive control (waiting their turn, saying “I don’t like that” instead of smacking someone, persisting in trying to solve a difficult puzzle) — and it’s also when vocabulary skills skyrocket. Scientists think that mastering two languages challenges the brain to selectively pay attention to and produce one set of words, while suppressing the other set. The process is similar to impulse control — in order to communicate, you need to put a lid on one language, or else your speech comes out as a jumbled mess.

It’s unclear exactly how the edge in executive functions could impact a bilingual kids’ lifelong learning. But certainly these skills are getting props from psychologists as being equally important to qualities like IQ when it comes to getting ahead in life. Executive function is arguably one of the most important set of skills we learn — to delay gratification, make a plan, and focus on the task at hand. And as the recent book, Nurture Shock, highlighted, preschool and kindergarten programs that teach solid executive functioning are successful at propelling children forward in their learning.

No Longer Any Concerns

So it’s really not a question any more of the possible drawbacks of a bilingual home. In fact, when you consider the impressive feat of a monolingual baby — going from zero words to full conversations within three years — the fact that other children can carry two times the load, coming out doubly fluent, in more or less the same time frame is stunning. It’s also testament to how expert their little brains are for soaking up languages. Here’s how to get your little linguist to begin learning:

  • It’s never to late, Start now. Two- and 3-year-olds are not only increasing their vocabularies, they’re starting to recognize the speech patterns they’ve been hearing since birth. The earlier you introduce a second language, the easier it will be for your child to pick up its unique sounds. The ability to hear different phonetic pronunciations is sharpest before age 3, and we lose the capacity to hear and produce certain sounds if we aren’t exposed to them early on, according to François Thibaut. So just hearing a television show, listening to music, or learning a few words in a second language will give your child essential tools for appreciating it now and learning to speak it later.
  • Create a casual learning environment. The best way for a child to learn to understand a new language is for him to hear people speaking it fluently, says Thibaut. If he’s exposed to conversations, he’ll begin to pick up the sounds and the natural accent. Choose a language that is spoken in your neighborhood, on a television show your child can watch regularly, or one that is offered in classes or playgroups in your area. “If you have a bilingual babysitter, encourage her to speak her native language to your child exclusively,” says Rhodes. Two- and 3-year-olds love to mimic what they hear, and soon they’ll begin to understand the meanings of short words and phrases.
  • Teach a word at a time. If you don’t want to do formal lessons and if your not bilingual, you can introduce bilingual basics by pointing out to your child that objects can have two names — one in each language.
  • Have reasonable expectations. Of course, a child won’t learn to speak another language fluently from hearing words, watching videos, or singing songs. But simply being exposed to a language will help her understand phrases when she hears them. So even though you probably won’t be having a French conversation with your child very soon, if you say “bonne nuit” every night at bedtime, she’ll figure out what you mean.

Here is a great example of a bilingual preschool…

Happy teaching!