The earlier children learn a second language, the smarter they’ll be – so the research says!
27 May 2021| Last updated on 7 June 2021
Research says that the earlier children are immersed in languages, the quicker their brains will develop and the smarter they will be.
The World Literacy Foundation said that it is much easier for young children to learn a new language than adults because this is when their brains begin to develop. The early years are a vital period when cognitive skills and connections are formed which learning a second language can enhance.
The level of perception and inquisitiveness improves in younger children, and helps them learn more rapidly in every area.
Swiss International Scientific School's educational approach immerses children into a second language from age 3, as part of their bilingual and language acquisition programmes. Bilingual streams in French or German are available from age 3-18 years, and all children study additional languages as part of the curriculum from PreKG onwards, regardless of their bilingual preference.
Early childhood language retention
Recent paediatric research supports the importance of first language use in the context of speech and language development in preschool children.
Preschool children who develop strong language skills in their first language can learn a second language more easily and do better at school with reading and writing.
Professor Stephen Krashen from the University of Southern California, a respected linguist and promoter of bilingual education and second-language acquisition, believes there are two important ingredients for teaching a second language to school-aged children.
He explains: "We need to provide students with a great deal of comprehensible input, the essential ingredient in language acquisition. Several decades of research has confirmed that we acquire language when we understand what we read or what we hear."
"This means filling the classroom hour with aural comprehensible input and making sure students establish a pleasure reading habit in the second language. It is crucial that the input be not only interesting, but compelling; so interesting that students forget it is in a second language," Professor Krashen continued.
He added that "the second ingredient is making sure students know how language is acquired, so that they can continue to improve in the language after the course is over, and acquire other languages."
We also associate bilingualism with other benefits: listening skills, concentration, working memory, and greater attention spans.
Bilingual children excel at mental flexibility and executive control skills:
- Goal achievement
- Motivation to complete complex school assignments.
They exhibit more creativity and are better at multitasking and conflict resolution.
Children who learn two languages simultaneously have cognitive benefits longer, but sequential or successive bilinguals (people who learn new languages one at a time) benefit too.
Speaking more than one language even helps us when we’re older. The changes bilingualism makes in the brain help to fight against mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease later in life.
Decision-making and problem-solving
In the same study from above, the babies from bilingual households had lots of activity in their prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortices, the regions of the brain responsible for decision-making and problem-solving.
An earlier study showed bilingual adults had better executive brain functions than those who spoke one language.
Bilingual adults are better able to recall memories, switch focus between tasks, and show a higher level of problem-solving and planning. Bilingual children show these same skills, which are required for academic success. Doing well in school also indicates long-term happiness.
Academic and professional advantages
The cognitive skills of bilingual children can lead to academic and behavioral success.
Children who learn multiple languages at an early age gain phonological awareness skills, which are required for reading. Exposure to more words in multiple languages makes them more apt to learn the equivalent of any word they pick up in another language. With an increased vocabulary, they learn alphabets and spelling more naturally.
The World Literacy Foundation concludes that children who acquire a second language at an early age are more creative than their counterparts, and it has also been found that that the cognitive skills that they learn can lead to better academic outcomes.
It’s possible for a student to be bilingual, but not bi-literate; bilingual students can develop stronger literacy skills if they learn to read in the languages they speak. The more they can memorise vocabulary and gain phonological awareness and metalinguistic skills in both languages, the faster they’ll learn to read, but proper instruction from bilingual teachers is crucial.
Bilingual students have improved literacy and math skills, and typically score higher on standardised tests. The longer they spend learning a second language, the more their test scores also improve. Research has also shown that bilingual children have better and more advanced reading skills.
A study undertaken by York University in Canada suggests that bilingual children’s knowledge of a second language gives them an advantage in learning to read.
As adults, bilingual children can spend their post-secondary education or time specialising in a field of their interest. They may find jobs translating or interpreting in fields related to their expertise. Employers pay multilingual individuals significantly more in legal, medical, technical, or scientific industries.
The Linguistic Society recommends a few ways to raise a bilingual child, even if the parents are not bilingual:
- “One parent one language” method. Each parent speaks a different language to the child. The baby knows what to expect, and how to respond.
- Expose your child to foreign words consistently. Point out foreign foods every time you have them, or watch a bilingual show with your child.
- Get involved in a Language Exchange community, where you and your child can practice speaking another language with native speakers together.
If your family speaks one language in your household, this is all the more reason that enrolling your child into a bilingual school can aid them in their learning of a second language.