SStudies show that young children have the ability to learn multiple languages. According to a 2009 study at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, learning multiple languages at once is good for a child’s mental development and brain capacity.
Two local language professionals, Sandrine Pal, Chair of the World Languages Department at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, and Rick Tate, Chair of the Modern and Classical Languages Department at Hawken School in Chester Township , both agreed children show great ability to learn the language, and the earlier the child is exposed to a foreign language, the more likely they are to retain the language and demonstrate fluency.
“The No. 1 reason (that kids learn a language better) is that kids are developmentally ready to learn languages,” Pal said. “Cognitively, when they’re young, they’re still learning their first language and their brains are very open to learning a second language.
“People treat it differently saying you learn easier when you’re younger or you’re able to pick up accents easier, and both are true. Cognitively and phonologically, children are born like a blank slate in terms of sounds they are able to hear. As we get older, we gradually suppress the sounds we never hear or use. That’s why when you learn languages when you’re older, it’s more difficult for you to making those rough “R” sounds or tones because your throat hasn’t exercised those muscles and your ears are ignoring those tones.”
Tate said that although children find it easier to verbally learn languages quickly at a young age, they have a harder time learning grammatical rules that are easier for adults to learn.
“All children start producing language in the same age range,” he said. “But what’s interesting is that at the onset of puberty, this acquisition stage shifts to pattern-based language learning. Young children can’t really grasp the rules of language, but they can learn the patterns. These automatic patterns begin to subside at puberty and you begin to focus only on the rules of the tongue. People who say that children learn languages faster are only half right in that sense.
Pal said that when teaching children languages, especially those that are fundamentally different from English, such as Chinese and Japanese, it’s best to start learning as early as possible, maybe even later. teaching first and second languages interchangeably. Along with language proficiency, Pal said early exposure to language could also open children up to different cultures.
“Language learning can expose children to otherness and cross-cultural education at an early age when they are still very open to the world around them,” she said. “It also gives them more intellectual flexibility to empathize with other cultures and how to look at things from a different perspective.”
Both Pal and Tate have stated that there is one method to successfully teaching a foreign language to a child and that is to do it through what comes naturally to a child. Combining language lessons with play time or topics of interest, such as animals, helps children associate words with actions they do every day.
“Children learn through play early in life, and if you let them play in orderly areas, the brain creates synapses to make understanding knowledge easier for them,” Tate said. “Good language programs have embraced the idea of a useful game to help students acquire language.”
As to why more schools are not agreeing to teach children multiple languages, Tate said it had to do with historical choices, namely the one made in 1912 at the turn of the Industrial Revolution.
“There was a committee in the United States that studied language learning and found that it was not really an essential part of what the student needed to enter the industrial revolution because of our proximity with other countries,” he said. “But that’s really changing dramatically because more and more schools are seeing the importance of being global citizens. We believe in being educated globally, we also need to understand the languages of those people.