Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I are both American and speak only English. We’ve heard that it’s good to expose children to other languages. Is it really? If so, when and how do we do it?
A: There’s absolutely no question that learning a second language is good for kids (and adults). Here’s how:
- It boosts academic achievement. Literally dozens of studies have found that children who study a foreign language get better grades and score higher on standardized tests. More specifically, kids who learn more than one language do better than their mono-lingual (knowing only one-language) peers on verbal and math exams. Yes, math. According to some experts, learning a new language requires an understanding of patterns and deciphering puzzles—both of which are related to mathematics. Multi-lingual kids also demonstrate better grammar usage, reading ability, spelling, and vocabulary in their native language.
- It’s good for the brain. Children who learn additional languages have longer attention spans and better memory. They also have better listening- and critical thinking skills and are more creative problem solvers.
- It’s good for the brain later in life, too. A study published in the journal Neurology found that people who speak a second language develop dementia an average of 4.5 years later than those who speak only one. What’s even more fascinating about this study is that it found the same benefits in people who were illiterate. And the more languages the better. Magali Perquin, a researcher at the Public Research Center for Health (CRP-Sante) in Luxembourg, studied men and women who spoke two to seven languages. Perquin found that those who spoke three were three times less likely to have cognitive problems than bilinguals (those poor souls who spoke “only” two languages). And those who spoke four or more were five times less likely to develop cognitive problems than bilinguals.
- It could help with employment. The U.S. may be the dominant economic power in the world, but when it comes to jobs, American are competing against people from all over the world. Speaking more than one language opens up job possibilities in other countries and with U.S. companies that do business overseas. A study done at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, which has a foreign language requirement (and is where I got my MBA), found that graduates felt that knowing a foreign language had given them a competitive advantage in getting hired and improved their career path.
- It shrinks the world. Knowing another language—even just a little—makes it easier (and a lot more fun) to travel and experience other cultures.
As far as when to begin, the simple answer is, “as soon as possible.” Some studies indicate that starting at about the time puberty kicks in, we lose the ability to hear and reproduce sounds from other languages. That explains why most people who move to a new country as adults can’t quite lose their accent. But their children master the host language—including idioms, slang, and even swearing—accent-free.
Since you and your husband speak only English, teaching your child a new language will be challenging. But there are some great resources out there—just Google “language learning for kids. The two I’m most familiar with are Whistlefritz (www.whistlefritz.com) and Little Pim (www.littlepim.com), both of which are a great way to introduce your child (and yourself) to another language. Just pick the one you like, and you’ll learn vocabulary, conversation, songs, and even some culture.
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