Part 2: Common Questions Parents Ask
What language should I use with my child?
Research shows that children’s language development is enhanced when they are engaged in meaningful, rich, interactive conversations with people who listen to them and respond to their interests and questions. The more language children hear, the bigger their vocabulary will become. However, the quantity of words a child is exposed to is enhanced by the quality of the interactions and the language that takes place. Therefore, experts recommend that parents use the language in which they are the most competent and are thus able to participate in higher quality interactions with their children. As Professor Nonie Lesaux of Harvard University once claimed during a lecture on language acquisition,
“If we are not comfortable with the language we are using we are going to use less of it and it is going to be lower quality”
When children have developed and accumulated a deep understanding of knowledge over time through interesting experiences, the sharing of stories and ideas through rich dialogue and the asking and answering of questions that require critical thinking, their reading ability will be enhanced over time. Words, in any language, are labels for concepts, and once concepts are understood, the labels (or words in different languages) can more easily be transferred and learned.
Are there advantages to growing up multilingual?
Absolutely! Professor Gigi Luk, an expert in bilingualism at Harvard University, asserts that human brains are better off with exposure to multiple languages. According to Luk, having the ability to speak and understand more than one language leads to the sharpening of the brain and protects and preserves cognitive function well into old age. Being multilingual also enhances executive function skills and helps children recognize and discriminate distinct speech sounds (a very helpful skill in learning to read and decode print). Lifelong bilingualism has also been shown to delay dementia and verbal fluency, or word retrieval, well into old age.
Will exposure to multiple languages cause confusion for my child?
The human brain is remarkable adaptable and has the capacity to learn throughout our lifespans. Brain imaging has shown that babies are born with the ability to hear and discriminate between all sounds in human language. By the time infants reach their first birthday, the brain will have gone through a natural pruning process in which it eliminates all the pathways for sounds that are not represented in the speech a child hears on a consistent basis. Meanwhile, the pathways within the brain comprised of sounds the infant does hear are reinforced and strengthened. When a child is regularly exposed to more than one language, the pathways for the sound discrimination of all the languages the child regularly hears and interacts with are strengthened and expanded. Anecdotal evidence supports the fact that children can, from a very young age, determine the difference between languages and they have the ability to keep the languages separate and interchangeable in appropriate conversations. Human brains have an extraordinary capacity to keep track of and use languages contextually.
One particularly interesting finding in the field of neurolinguistic research is that the neural connections in the brain related to sound discrimination occurring before infants begin talking cannot be artificially stimulated. Babies who are exposed to languages within the context of video or audio recordings of an additional language do not display the same neural results as the babies who have been exposed to language by face-to-face human interaction. It seems that humans learn languages best through responsive communication within meaningful context.
How long does it take for a child to become fluent in a language?
Multiple factors influence the length of time required to master a language. Variables include the child’s extent of immersion or exposure to a language, the level of motivation a learner has, the personality of the child and perhaps most importantly, the depth and strength of the child’s foundational language(s). Fluency in one language is preferable to partial fluency in many languages.
Is there a window of opportunity for learning new languages? Will my child miss out if she doesn’t learn an additional language before a certain age?
Research in the field of neuroscience shows that human brains have the capacity to learn new languages all throughout life. Young brains are more malleable and adaptive early on. However, older learners may have more motivation to learn and may find their prior language experiences and logic to be helpful in acquiring an additional language. Due to the pruning function of brain connections, the ability to discriminate between sounds will hinder older learners from achieving natural sounding pronunciation of new languages, nonetheless, fluency can be reached.
Do you have questions that were not addressed? Please add your questions in the comments!