In the many years I’ve been teaching, the age-old question has been posed to me numerous times: “What is the best age for my child to begin learning a second language?”
As a parent, you’re bombarded with so much information regarding how to handle the early months of your child’s life. You want them to get the best start in life, which can be overwhelming and confusing. But language development is one of those “things” that happen in your baby’s development with or without extra activities to promote it.
This blog aims to help you understand how a baby develops language. It will give you information that will put some of your concerns about their language development at rest and, if you’re considering raising your child bi-lingually, support your efforts.
Why is it important to talk about language development in children?
I feel this topic is VERY important. Children’s language capabilities are much more extensive than traditionally thought.
The focus of this blog is:
- To understand what to expect in your child’s speech development
- To understand why a baby is capable of learning more than one language
- To understand what happens when a baby learns 2 languages at a young age
Did you know that worldwide, 800 different sounds have been identified that differentiate the languages of the world and that, at birth, a baby can produce ALL these sounds and identify them with the languages to which they belong?
Isn’t that amazing?
Did you know babies have the capability of distinguishing between languages?
According to Research Scientist Naja Ferjan Ramirez of the University of Washington, “By the time they’re born, newborns can tell the difference between their mother’s language and another language, but also show a capability of distinguishing between languages.”
Each language has a group of high-frequency sounds. If a baby is brought up in a monolinguistic household, they only hear one set of these high-frequency sounds and don’t get the chance to differentiate sounds and languages. However, if a baby, as young as a newborn, hears 2 languages, their brain sorts out which sounds go with which words and which language.
How do we know this?
In the past twenty years, neuroscience has blossomed and has, through very sophisticated non-invasive testing, been able to study the baby’s brain and how it develops linguistically. Using the MEG (magnetoencephalography), this study pinpointed the timing and location of activity in the brain as babies listened to high-frequency sounds found in English and Spanish.
In this 2016 study, Naja Ferjan Ramirez and her team found some key differences between infants raised in monolingual versus bilingual homes. They studied a group of 11-month-old children, and some were exposed to both English and Spanish. They discovered that babies from a mono-linguistic household became specialists in processing the sounds found in English, while the babies exposed to both English and Spanish were able to specialize in processing the sounds of both languages.
What is happening in the brain during the language learning process?
In 2015, Patricia K Kuhl also spoke of the work of neuroscientists and their work on getting a picture of what is happening in the brain during the learning process that takes the child from a gurgling/babbling newborn to an engaging youngster.
During the first year, her research showed a “sensitive period” (a term named by neuroscientists) during which the brain is ready to receive the first basic language lessons. Ms. Kuhl discovered that the child’s brain is most open to the sounds of a native tongue at six months for vowels and nine months for consonants.
Using the MEG, it seems that this “sensitive period” lasts only a few months but is extended for children exposed to more than one language sounds. For these children, the ability to pick up a second language with some degree of fluency is extended to the age of seven.
How does a baby go from babbling to producing sounds to producing words, and how long does that take?
If we think about this observable process, we can see that the baby will mimic the first sounds they hear. Second, they’ll string these sounds together, mimic the speed at which they interpret the language’s speed, and add in the intonation.
Have you ever had a “babble” conversation with a little one?
I remember having a wonderful conversation with my niece on her “babbling” stage. She was so excited to tell me her story. At every break, I would say to her, “Really? Wow! Tell me more.”
She was so excited to see my response that she continued, to which I said, “You don’t say!”. We had so much fun. This went on for about 5 minutes until her intonation trailed off as if it was the end of the story, at which point, I said, “Thank you for sharing! That was so special.” And indeed, it was.
This journey from babbling to speaking words and communicating their thoughts is long and complex. It’s hours and hours of hearing the repetition of sounds and human connection through eye contact and association of words with objects, pictures, and situations.
Patricia Kuhl and her team have shown that hearing the sounds alone is not as effective – it must be accompanied by social interactions for the infant to learn.
What exactly happens to a brain when exposed to more than one language at an early age?
In recent years, neuroscientists have discovered that the brain has quite a plasticity to it. This plasticity enables it to take in, store, and differentiate material.
When a baby is born, the brain is not fully developed, and the neurons and synapses are not connected. According to the research done at the University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Experts in Children’s Health, in an article published in 2022, these systems of neurons and synapsis develop at an astounding rate of over one million per second.
These are formed with every interaction and sensation the baby experiences. By the time the child is 5-1/2, this foundation is 90% complete. If not exposed to another language before this point, it’s extremely difficult to attain fluency in that language later in life.
How does this help a child learn a second language?
Building brain connections is hard work that takes hours of dedicated time. The more languages the baby is exposed to in the beginning, the more the child will be able to differentiate sounds and “bounce” back and forth between languages. The brain retains this pliability for life.
As a parent, depending on your pediatrician and/or family, you may encounter pushback regarding exposing your child to more than one language at a young age. Science presents strong evidence for the benefits and what it does to the brain. Learn the benefits and the research created by neuroscientists. It is quite amazing and profound. Awakening the brain early is a good thing.
What are the benefits of beginning language and second language learning early?
We have been concentrating on brain development in this article and the differences in a baby’s brain that is exposed to one language and then to a second. Let’s talk a little bit about why learning a second language at a young age is beneficial.
When we expose little ones to all kinds of languages and experiences, the brain takes it all in and becomes very diverse. In other words, the baby grows up with a greater acceptance of differences, and these differences become normal.
As a young child, I was exposed to Italian as a second language growing up. As a second-generation American born, I was surrounded by speakers of this language. Because all my relatives spoke a dialect, my mother chose not to teach us Italian.
However, I can say with all certainty that this exposure was priceless. Going through school, I was never thrown by different sounds, word order, or customs/culture that accompanied new languages: in fact, it was just a norm that did not need to be analyzed or questioned.
Having a second language can and will prepare your child for the world and help them learn more about other cultures.
What things can a parent do to help reduce their anxiety?
I suggest finding a parent group of like-minded moms and dads interested in exposing their children to a second language at a young age. In groups such as these, discussions are very beneficial.
One thing to remember is apparent delays in language development are just that – apparent delays. In the end, research has shown that mono-linguistic and bi-lingual children have the same or larger acquired vocabulary than their mono-linguistic counterparts.
The brain is constantly working, developing, identifying, sorting, and, in the end, producing. According to Ms. Ramerez, research has found that bilingual children show improved executive functioning of the brain – that is, they can shift attention, switch between tasks and solve problems more easily.
Another suggestion is to put your child into a second language Mommy and Me program. This is an excellent opportunity for bonding time and exposing your child to another language that isn’t the principal language in your home.
Learn a second language with your child
The Language Learning Institute has Mommy and Me programs in French and Spanish that are worth looking into. The programs are designed and developed based on research and are very effective and fun! Take a look at the program here.
Neuroscience has come a long way in making discoveries regarding the plasticity of the brain and its ability to pick up on high-frequency vowels and consonants of languages.
Additionally, they have discovered the brain’s capability to identify those sounds with its language, allowing the child to learn two (or more) languages simultaneously.
Another key point that these researchers and scientists discovered is that exposing the brain to all these sounds allows the timetable for a child to become fluent to the age of 7 over 5-1/2.
This is such an exciting time in a baby’s life. As a teacher of languages for over 40 years, I encourage parents to lean into these discoveries. Being a parent can be a very scary and uncertain time. Every parent wants to do right by their child: trust the research.
If you find this blog helpful and interesting, please feel free to explore our children’s courses here.
Would you like to talk more? Call us at 518-346-7096 or get in touch with us online.
- National Library of Medicine: Brain Mechanisms in Early Language Acquisition, by Patricia K. Kuhl https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2947444/
- The Science of Health: Easy Ways to Enhance Your Baby’s Brain Development, by Margaret Kuper Sasse MD Published April 20, 2022
- Scientific American: How Babies Learn Language By Patricia K. Kuhl on November 1, 2015
- The Conversation: Why the baby brain can learn two languages at the same time by Naja Ferjan Ramirez Published: April 15, 2016, 5.58 am EDT
- https://theconversation.com/why-the-baby-brain-can-learn-two-languages-at-the-same-time-57470OG 3