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BABEL'S CHILDREN

Learning Languages - how soon should we start?

“The recent immense increase of facility for rapid travel makes even the idler wish that he were less frequently tongue-tied by the want of power to speak at ease with Frenchman, Italian, or Spanish, German or Dane when meeting him and receiving friendly offices from him in his country,” wrote Charles Dickens in 1864.

CHILDREN EXPOSED TO DIFFERENT LANGUAGES NOT ONLY BECOME MORE AWARE OF DIFFERENT CULTURES AND OTHER PEOPLE, THEY ALSO TEND TO BE BETTER AT MULTITASKING AND PROBLEM-SOLVING


Even now, the ability to speak more than one language fluently remains a relatively new phenomenon in the UK. However, a recent survey carried out by the University of Edinburgh discovered that in Scotland alone, with its population of 5 million, 106 different languages are spoken. This may come as a surprise to us but in many parts of the world it is common for children to be exposed to two or more languages. Some estimates even suggest that as much as 75% of the world’s population can speak two languages.

For many, the gift of languages holds the key to cultural diversity, economic opportunity and enriched education. Yet, in the UK, bilingualism and multilingualism are often surrounded by misunderstandings, misinformation and myths.

Antonella Sorace, Professor of Developmental Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, who carried out this most recent research and has founded a new initiative to raise awareness, Bilingualism Matters, is on the side of those who believe it is a gift: “Recent research on bilingual language and cognition has shown that bilingualism is beneficial for children’s development and their future in many different respects. Children exposed to different languages not only become more aware of different cultures and other people, they also tend to be better at multitasking and focusing attention, and they are more precocious readers.”

75% of the world’s population can speak two languages


The most common reasons for children being bilingual are because either the parents speak different languages or the parents speak the same language but live somewhere where most people speak something else, but as Professor Sorace points out: “Many parents and teachers still think that bilingualism can cause confusion and intellectual delay in children. In reality, there are no such drawbacks and this research shows that bringing children up bilingually could have further benefits besides being able to speak two languages.”

So, what’s holding us back?


Those who want to raise multilingual children will be met with many opinions on how to go about it. Over the last 20 years extensive research has been carried out and a number of the myths have been dispelled.

What is clearly most important for parents is to understand the facts and from there they can make an informed decision.

Too much, too soon?


Deborah Ruuskanen, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Vaasa in Finland explains: There appears to be a ‘window’ of learning language that ‘opens’ at about the age of ten months. Over the next two years, infants acquire language at an astonishing rate. By the age of three, they have acquired basic syntax (sentence structure), basic grammar (the ‘rules’ of language), and a large vocabulary of basic words necessary to their physical and emotional survival.”

Many parents and teachers still think that bilingualism can cause confusion and intellectual delay in children


Psychologists from the University of Bristol have found that this window may open even earlier as babies listen to words even when they cannot speak. They have discovered that the developing brain undergoes a period of ‘programming’ in infancy which sets up its ability to recognise key sounds in whatever will become its native language. In this way, the brain filters out sounds not used in the native language. Dr Nina Kazanina, leading the research says: “When a baby is born it has the capacity to distinguish every type of speech sound. Even if the parents are English, that baby has the capacity to distinguish Greek and Chinese vowel sounds. By six months, an infant can only recognise vowels from its native language, and within another two or three months the same happens to consonant sounds. So within 9 to 10 months, a baby’s universal language ability is reduced to its native language.”

When a baby is born it has the capacity to distinguish every type of speech sound. Even if the parents are English, that baby has the capacity to distinguish Greek and Chinese vowel sounds

The debate as to when the language ‘window’ closes, if it ever does, continues but there does seem to be an optimal age when the child’s mind is still open, has space to absorb and is creating neural pathways to store language when the brain cells are not yet cluttered with other learning.

Two languages just confuse the child?

Confusing children at such an early age is also cause for concern amongst parents contemplating how to approach a multilingual household.

From her own experiences, Dr Antonella Sorace has found that children don’t get confused when they hear two languages spoken around them: “Children are incredibly sensitive to the different ways people speak. Even when they only hear one language, they learn very quickly about differences between the way men and women talk, the difference between polite and impolite ways of talking, and so on. For children, the bilingual situation is just a matter of another difference between people!”

Further research has also shown that most bilingual children can separate their languages easily. They will often mix the languages together to fill in gaps in vocabulary. This is known as code-switching. Interestingly, bilingual children will speak to those who only speak one language only in that relevant language.

The Multilingual Children’s Association gives advice on the number of languages that can be learnt: “Generally, the number of languages within the household is the number of languages baby gets on his plate, maybe one extra . . . Beyond four simultaneous languages, the success rate starts to fall significantly. Researchers claim that a child needs to be exposed to a language 30% of their waking time to actually speak it.”

Too much like hard work?


It cannot be denied that for a child to be truly multilingual there is going to be a commitment on both the parents’ and child’s side. It requires patience during frustrating times. Professor Sorace says: “The main thing to keep in mind is that parents don’t really ‘teach’ children to speak, any more than they teach them to walk or smile. The most important things in language development are exposure and need. If children are exposed to a language in a variety of circumstances with many different people from the time they are born, and if they feel they need the language to interact with the world around them, they will learn it. If they are exposed to two languages from the moment they are born, and if they need both languages to communicate, they will learn both.”

The main thing to keep in mind is that parents don’t really ‘teach’ children to speak, any more than they teach them to walk or smile


She also advocates the importance of keeping it natural: “If children feel that they are forced to do something weird or embarrassing, they will probably resist it. Explicit rules – say, speaking one language on some days and the other on others – can be very hard to enforce and can help create a negative attitude.”

There are lots of resources that parents can now use to help. Having relevant materials – books, nursery rhymes and songs, films, and toys is fun and useful.

Too late?


Children can learn another language at any age, as can we. It is just easier during the early period. Ideally, children do best if they start learning before the age of 12, not only because of the physical capability of their brains but also because they do not suffer so much with teenage embarrassment. The key for older children is motivation to learn. They will need to understand why they are learning the language and the advantages that go with it. Relevance and inspiration will come from fun activities and varied interaction with people of different ages and in different environments.

Advantages?


Professor Colin Baker of the University of Bangor, an expert in bilingual education says that bilingual children have an advantage in terms of intelligence: “They actually have a higher IQ. It seems having two languages in the brain stimulates it, adds extra associations into the brain and deepens thinking.”

Other commonly recognised advantages include:
  • Better problem-solving and lateral thinking ability
  • Greater creativity
  • Better reading and writing skills
  • Wide vocabulary and understanding of language structure and grammar
  • Ability to express more tolerant attitudes towards others
  • Ability to speak to people from different cultures and understand different social codes
  • Easier to learn other languages later in life as the sounds, rhythm, and structure will already be bedded in
  • Confidence and ease in different environments, assisting in natural adaptability and increased self-esteem
  • Increased career prospects as global commerce continues to grow

They actually have a higher IQ. It seems having two languages in the brain stimulates it, adds extra associations into the brain and deepens thinking


However, to benefit from these advantages, children must use the languages regularly. If the language is not spoken, it will easily be lost.

LINKS
Bilingualism Matters – Information and resources: www.bilingualism-matters.org.uk
The National Literacy Trust – Articles on early bilingual communication: www.literacytrust.org.uk The Multilingual Children’s Association – Advice pages: www.multilingualchildren.org
Ask a Linguist: www.linguistlist.org/askling/ biling.html
A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism, Colin Baker, 2nd Edition, 2000
Raising a Bilingual Child, Barbara Zurer Peasron, Random House, 2008