There are many advantages to growing up multilingual. The most obvious are the wide range of job opportunities and their brain’s ability to be wired in a special way. With all their critical thinking exercises in having to differentiate between the languages, they have the ability to solve many more complex, non-language related tasks.
There is one universal rule for language acquisition: the sooner you start, the better you will get. Hence, the reason parents should start to introduce different languages in their child’s early development.
It’s not impossible for adults to learn a new language as they can still have a good command of the grammar and vocabulary of a second language. However, scientists agree that it can be close to impossible to develop a flawless pronunciation after the so-called critical period has passed, which is usually around the onset of puberty.
Language learning starts in the womb
Research confirms that language acquisition declines after age 6 or 7, and that it’s almost impossible to reach the level of a native speaker after puberty. In fact, the best time for your child to start learning a second language is before it is born.
The hearing capacity of monolinguals is adjusted to the sound frequency of their native tongue and therefore they will often be unable to distinguish the unfamiliar sounds of a different language. In total, all human languages comprise around 800 different sounds (phonemes).
English uses 44 (20 of them vowel phonemes), Spanish uses 24 (5 vowel phonemes) and German uses 45 (17 vowel phonemes). The now extinct Ubykh language (whose last speaker died some 25 years ago) drew from an inventory of 86 different phonemes – with 2 vowel sounds only. While research has shown that certain activities, such as listening to classical music can improve one’s ability to capture the phonetic subtleties of a second language, our ears tend to get lazy as we get older.
A baby, however, can tell the difference between all sounds of all languages. A report published by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the United States concludes that the optimal time to expose an unborn child to the sounds of different languages is from the 34th week of pregnancy. By this time the baby will have developed the necessary capacities for language processing as the brain synapses are forming.
What can I do to foster language development in my child?
If you and your spouse speak different languages, the answer is obvious: simply raise your child bilingually. If one parent talks to the child say, in Spanish, while the other one speaks English, the child will naturally acquire both languages. Of course, as the child grows older and starts school, learning grammar and expanding their vocabulary will still require some effort.
You don’t need to be fluent for your child to become fluent
Whether you and your spouse have the same mother tongue and don’t speak any other language (yet), raising your child bilingually is nevertheless possible. Simply exposing your child to a foreign tongue will improve its ability to learn a new language.
Obviously, you will have to show an interest in the language you want your child to learn. Familiarize yourself with the grammar and basic vocabulary and learn along with your child. Learning how to employ efficient learning techniques first can make this easier for you. You don’t need to be fluent for your child to become fluent! And actually it’s much better to leave the phonetic education of your child to native speakers, otherwise it will acquire your poor accent.
Learning can be much more fun
It is important to give your child incentives to learn a new language. Usually being able to communicate with parents and siblings is incentive enough, but if you hardly speak the language you want your kids to learn then motivating them becomes more tricky.
Thanks to international media you can stream your child’s favorite TV show or install games in a different language. With the internet and gaming the possibilities of exposing your child to a second language in a fun way are endless. What’s more, most of them are much less expensive than enrollment fees for international kindergarteners or hiring a foreign nanny.
For example, the Baby’s Brilliant app has been specially developed to foster language learning in toddlers. It features games and videos introducing letters, numbers and animals to babies and small children (currently in English, Spanish, Chinese, German and French – more languages to follow soon).
And when your child gets bored with online learning why not try to find real playmates your child can speak to. Now you’re talking!