“Even before they can speak, baby and toddler brains are pre-wired to learn up to three languages,” says Julia Pimsleur Levine, founder and CEO of Little Pim, a foreign language-learning program for children. “Children are uniquely and temporarily primed to acquire up to three languages before the age of 6 with ease. After this early learning window, the brain’s plasticity diminishes dramatically and it gets increasingly harder every year. There is another drop-off between ages 10 to 12. Ironically, this is when most children in American start learning a second language.”
So what’s the earliest you should try to teach your child a new language? “Some studies recommend speaking to the child in utero, so it’s really never too early,” says Ludmila “Mila” Golovine, founder and CEO of MasterWord Services, Inc., a global language solutions company. “The challenge is exposing your child in a constructive and meaningful way that will be consistent without being confusing.”
“The One Parent One Language (OPOL) method helps a child learn and avoids confusion,” explains Levine. Stephanie, a native of Switzerland, has been speaking French to her 7-year-old since she was born, while her husband speaks only English. “It was very hard at first sticking to French only. French felt very rusty for me after being in the U.S. for 20 years. Speaking English would have been much easier. But I persevered, and am so happy I did. Although Chloe usually speaks in English, when she answers me, I know she understands everything I say. She reads French fluently. When in Switzerland, she uses the language easily with all her cousins and her accent is impeccable.”
Golovine recommends one person be the “anchor” of a language in the household. Perhaps a grandparent speaks Russian, mom speaks English and dad speaks French. “It also depends on the child’s age and openness to language. I have friends who record their kid’s favorite cartoons in other languages in order to expose them to a familiar character.”
Erika and Derek have two girls, ages 4 and 2. Derek speaks English, and Erika is a native Hungarian. “The biggest challenge is finding ways to speak Hungarian with other people, showing them it's not something weird that their mom does at home but actually something they can use to communicate with others,” says Erika. “I only read to them in Hungarian, and I do my best to speak Hungarian only. When Derek is around, I say it in Hungarian and repeat it in English.”
Derek says, “It's very surreal. I sometimes have my 4-year-old acting as a translator for my 2-year-old.” The couple also has the challenge of their eldest being diagnosed with speech issues. “We have to evaluate how she speaks in both languages. Sometimes the results in one language will contradict the results in the other language,” says Derek. “It makes the process more frustrating but, at the same time, it gives us a better chance of not misdiagnosing the issue, which could waste valuable time in her development."
Stephanie also encountered a speech issue with her daughter. “Chloe had speech delays and one speech therapist told me to stop speaking French to her,” says Stephanie, who flatly refused. “I know bilingual kids can sometimes be late in talking, but they do catch up and still live with the lifelong advantage of speaking two languages. When Chloe later saw a real brain specialist, she told me I did Chloe the biggest service by teaching her two languages, as it was helping her develop a part of her brain that needed to grow.”
If a parent isn’t fluent in the second language — instead learning right alongside her children — the journey can be difficult. Homeschooling mom Lynn is teaching her three young children Arabic, Mandarin and ancient Greek, none of which she speaks herself. “I’ve taken the perspective of slow and steady progress. One of my kids is beyond me in skills already, but I like a challenge.”
“The good news for non native-speaking parents is that it's not all or nothing,” adds Levine. “Even if one parent speaks in the chosen second language 50 to 75 percent of the time, that is preferable to each parent speaking a smattering of English and a second language.”
“Children can learn up to three languages without confusion. Think of the kids in Africa, India and the Netherlands who are raised with three to four languages,” says Levine. “However, language experts believe that it's best not to teach two romance or two tonal languages to avoid confusion. So, Spanish and Mandarin are complementary, but French and Italian would be too similar.”
Teaching your child more than one language at the same time need not be difficult if you are dedicated to the practice. “It must be a concerted effort and not just an occasional music CD or video game in the other language if you want your child to really begin to get the foundations of language,” says Golovine.
Bilingual kids may have an edge. Learning a second language has been shown to improve memory and analytical abilities. A person can become better at multitasking, strengthen problem-solving skills and give abstract thinking a boost.
And, of course, being bilingual or multilingual can only give a child an advantage in future endeavors, whatever career path they may choose. “We live in an increasingly global world. Learning a language now is an investment that pays off for a lifetime. Parents realize their kids are going to be competing with not just Americans in the marketplace but peers from all over the world,” says Levine.
“Language development and speaking really starts to develop between 2 to 4 years old,” says Golovine. “Multilingual children also begin to respond and understand different languages at the same time.”
“At the beginning, Vera didn't realize she was speaking two languages,” Erika says. “When she turned 4 she started to make comments like, ‘Mommy, I’m speaking in English.’ When she was younger she mixed the two languages in the same sentence. She chose the word that was easier. Now that she talks better, she knows which language to use and doesn’t mix them anymore.”
Erika has also noticed that one language is always more dominant than the other for her girls. “When Vera went to American preschool, her English was better. When I stayed home with them, her Hungarian was better.”
Thanks to the internet, you can find some of your kids' favorite TV shows in Spanish, French, Mandarin and other languages with a simple Google search. Allowing your children to watch TV shows and movies in a foreign language provides a little immersion at home. Plus, you can find a multitude of foreign language software programs and learning websites for kids. Some of our favorites include:
If you don’t speak a second language but still want your child to learn a language besides English, there are plenty of opportunities to expose them to other languages. “There are multilingual day cares, play group settings and cartoons,” says Golovine.
Even if you aren’t learning alongside your children, this endeavor takes dedication in order to truly master a new language. “Practice the language every day in some form or fashion — listen to a tape, a movie or read,” Golovine advises. “Enroll in a formal school for that language. Or get a tutor to visit your home on a regular basis to help with homework in that language.”
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