Even if your knowledge of a second language starts and ends with “venti macchiato,” there are still plenty of ways to help your child learn and even become fluent in a second language.
Dr. Suzanne Flynn, Professor of Foreign Languages and Linguistics at MIT, is the person to turn to if you want your child to master two – or even three – languages. “Being multilingual is a natural state of the human mind,” she says. “In the United States, over 2/3 of us have learned another language at some point. In many households, multilingualism is a way of life.”
In addition to being able to communicate in another language, new research is shining a light on what Dr. Flynn calls the “positive consequences” of being bilingual. Think of them as the extra perks to knowing another language. These perks include cross-cultural understanding, greater empathy, and enhanced musical ability. There’s also intellectual benefits according to Dr. Flynn. “[There are] enhanced executive function abilities, which includes organization and processing of incoming speech, focus, and blocking out distracters. Being bilingual or multilingual can help preschool-aged kids control their inhibitions, allowing them to pay attention, follow instructions, and take turns. It also helps with deeper abstract thinking throughout childhood,” she explains. The benefits are not short lived. When these bilingual kids become adults, they can also look forward to improved problem solving and being able to better focus on tasks.
When to Introduce a Second Language
So what is the best age for introducing a new language? Dr. Flynn says ASAP. “The earlier the better, for lots of reasons, one being that it’s easier to talk to an infant in two languages than it is when they’re 7 or 10.” She points out that people’s capacity for language is very sensitive – so sensitive, in fact, that kids can learn from overhearing a different language spoken in a classroom.
There’s also no need to worry about confusing your baby should you speak a different language at home, as there are no detrimental effects to learning multiple languages. “You’ll enhance their ability to learn English. If you speak another language besides English at home, don’t stop! Until the time they’re about three years old, kids can acquire two or more languages at the same time,” says Dr. Flynn. Studies have shown that babies can keep languages separate as soon as they’re born, and it doesn’t interfere with learning English.
How to Introduce a Second Language
Children in bilingual homes may have an advantage when it comes to learning a second language, as the best way to introduce a baby to a second language is by immersion in naturalistic settings – such as at home. If one parent speaks English and the other speaks a second language, one method to encourage the child to become fluent in both languages is to have one parent speak only English and the other parent speak only the second language to the child. If a grandparent speaks another language, ask them to only speak to the child in that language.
This method works for already bilingual families, but what if English is the only language spoken in the household? Not a problem, according to Dr. Flynn. If you don’t speak another language, there are other ways for your baby and toddler to learn another language. Hire a nanny or babysitter who speaks another language, visit other countries, listen to music in other languages, and sign your child up for special language camps when they get older. These are all great ways to give your child more exposure to another language.
It’s Never Too Late
Another option for English speaking families is to learn together. Parents can learn alongside their child in a variety of family-friendly ways. Chineasy, a language system designed by entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh, provides various ways to learn Chinese, from publications and board games to mobile learning. The apps provide different mediums, which allows kids, teens, and adults to engage in interactive learning experiences anytime, anywhere.
“We know that there are a lot of parents who would like their children to learn Chinese. When we designed the app, one of our goals was to find a way to help parents learn Chinese easily, so that they can help motivate their kids to learn as well. It is designed in a very intuitive way with visual association as well as quiz features to help parents learn Chinese easily. Additionally, the spirit of our app design is that parents and their kids can spend quality time together while using our app,” said ShaoLan.
Dr. Flynn agrees saying, “There’s no such thing as being too old or having a lack of talent. It’s never too late to learn a new language.”