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Little Linguists

Today’s world boasts a melting pot of different cultures and languages. So how do we help our kids keep ahead of the international learning curve?

Bi- or multilingualism could be the answer.

Pourquoi? Why Bilingualism

Children have the ultimate advantage when it comes to learning a new language: youth. If your baby is still babbling, no worries—no age or stage of development is too young to expose a child to a second language, according to Martine Delcroix, M.Ed. and head of Dallas International School’s preschool and elementary programs. Adults, she explains, will actually learn a new language at a quicker pace than children (especially over young toddlers who are developing a first language at the same time), but children extrapolate a more thorough knowledge of a second language’s pronunciation and inflections.

“It is very, very difficult for an adult to become fluent, whereas children can interchange between several languages,” says Delcroix. To infer meaning, an adult must translate a foreign language into his native tongue, but, once learned, a child possesses knowledge of a second language as though he were a native speaker and will speak with a more natural rhythm than an adult.

Barbara Lust, a linguistics expert at Cornell University’s Language Acquisition Lab (a cutting-edge research group studying children’s language development) examines additional benefits of bilingualism in her research: boosting a child’s executive functioning—specifically, the ability to focus on a task. Foreign language development, she says, teaches kids to “achieve goals in the face of distraction [due to highly attuned focus during language learning] and plays a key role in academic readiness and success in school settings.”

More Than Dora

So, with research overwhelmingly in support of kids learning a second language, the why seems clear—but how, specifically, do you teach a second language to your child when you’re not bilingual yourself?

There are two different types of language exposure, explains Delcroix. “Nondirect exposure is when you expose your child to a foreign-language movie or CD. Direct exposure is when the child interacts with another speaker of that language,” she says.

And while any attempt to awaken the curiosity of your child is beneficial, it’s the direct exposure that’s required in order for in-depth language learning to take place. “If you place your child in front of a TV, there is language development but it’s very slow,” she says. “If you place the child with other bilingual parents or kids, they will develop the language much faster.”

Dr. Sneha Bharadwaj, a Plano mom of two and speech pathologist who wrote her doctorate on bilingualism, says that some kind of immersion is key—but it’s also something parents might find a bit daunting. Yet, “it’s essential to mingle with other cultures,” she stresses. “It’s this [firsthand] knowledge of the culture that will further strengthen a child’s speaking abilities.”

“Children need to interact directly with an adult [who is a native speaker of the foreign language] at a strong intensity,” adds Delcroix. Or “it won’t be natural speaking,” she says. “There’s a lack of spontaneity and emotion when you try to share a language that you weren’t raised with.”

It was important for Bharadwaj, who does not consider herself a native bilingual, to teach her children, ages 3 and 6, both English and her family’s native language, Kannada (spoken in southern India). But, this proved to be a difficult task for Bharadwaj, who researched bilingualism at the University of Dallas’ Callier Language Center. Because she and her husband speak mostly English in their home (aside from a few simple commands in Kannada), Bharadwaj says her kids need an outside immersion resource to better develop their second language.

Delcroix and Bharadwaj both agree that a foreign-language-speaking babysitter or nanny, a bilingual preschool or bilingual play group are essentials for children who are learning a foreign language. But even once your child has entered a school program, it’s then time to find ways to continue the enrichment.

Cecilia Silva, a North Texas researcher of multicultural and bilingual education, says parents might also consider traveling abroad with their kids or (as their children get older) hosting foreign students or families in your home.

One argument made against instilling bilingualism from birth is that young children may become confused with the amount of vocabulary they’re exposed to at once. Delcroix says, “There will be times where the child mixes up vocabulary from the different languages, but this is part of the natural development—it’s part of the process.” Baharadwaj adds, “The long-term benefits far outweigh the small challenges that might arise in the short-term.”

Whatever your family’s choice, Delcroix points out, “It can be pricey in time, money and in emotions, but it’s one of the most valuable gifts you can give your child in this day and age. Not only will bilingualism add to your child’s resume, kids become more aware and respectful of different people and cultures [once they have been exposed to them].”