Should You Teach Your Child Multiple Languages?
As cultures continue to blend and society keeps changing, you may be wondering if you should start teaching your child additional languages. Learn more about how this can affect their speech abilities and development as well as some of the long-term benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism.
Is It Confusing for Kids to Learn More Than One Language at Once?
It may seem like information overload or that learning two (or more!) different words for various objects and concepts could be too much for a child to handle, but younger children's minds are like sponges during the early years of development. They stand a much better chance of learning complex concepts (such as bilingual and multilingual skills) during the time period between birth and thirteen years of age, although there is still a good chance of retaining new language information up to the age of eighteen as well.
Of course, when and how a child learns additional languages will vary. Some may learn multiple languages in the home (such as when their parents speak more than one language), or some may not begin to pick up additional languages until going to school or other activities in which they're exposed to other dialects or even entirely different languages altogether.
Where a child resides will determine their level of exposure. In the United States, many natives are raised solely with English as their primary language, but familiarity with Spanish is on the rise as Hispanic population groups continue to increase in number and bilingual individuals, job positions, and public services become more commonplace.
In Europe, multilingualism is far more common. This is also the case in many other locations, with some countries even being declared "officially bilingual" due to the population demographics and the prevalence of multiple 'dominant' languages. For children that grow up in these areas, learning more than one language is often just part of life.
For those of us in less linguistically diverse locations, learning additional languages may prove to be a bit more difficult and require specific instruction rather than just exposure and regular communication as in other scenarios.
Will It Slow Down a Child's Overall Language Abilities?
Learning one or more additional languages on top of a child learning the language predominantly spoken in the home will not "slow down" a child's learning capabilities any more than what would naturally occur when learning just one language.
They may be slower to grasp a language in its entirety compared to monolingual children, but keep in mind that they are learning two completely different sets of vocabulary as well different sentence structures, spoken grammar rules, and more. Although it will decrease the speed at which they are eventually fluent in both languages—and fluency in just one language can take some people years to achieve, even with numerous flaws in their vocabulary and grammar—they will be much more easily able to learn during their younger years compared to trying to learn an additional language when approaching or in the midst of adulthood.
Babies, toddlers, and younger children are just beginning to learn the basics of language in general regardless of which language they're speaking or how many different languages they're exposed to in the home and in daily life. This makes the initial act of picking up on additional terms somewhat simpler since they already are not concerning themselves with the complexity of tenses, proper sentence structure, and other aspects of language that most children in this age range have yet to grasp. This, in turn, provides them with a great starting point for eventual fluency compared to adults that are already fluent in one language and attempting to adapt to an entirely different set of vocabulary terms, rules, and structures different from their mother tongue.
Additionally, there are a number of cognitive benefits to encouraging your child to be bilingual or multilingual during their prime years of development.
The Benefits of Having a Bilingual or Multilingual Child
With how much information a child learns in their first few years of life, learning something as complex as multiple languages also influences how their brains learn, and this can lead to some very beneficial long-term cognitive effects.
Here are some of the benefits your child may gain from learning additional languages:
Improved critical thinking and problem-solving skills
Better multi-tasking skills
Improved executive functions in the brain
Better test scores compared to monolingual students
Better communication skills
More easily able to learn a third additional language
For parents and caregivers seeking further information on the topic, I strongly recommend that you check out this Linguistic Society article that discusses language development in children in bilingual homes, how location and the "importance" of a language in an area can affect learning or using additional languages, and the common occurrence of language mixing in bilingual and multilingual individuals.
This article by Fluent in 3 Months is also a great resource for methods of teaching your child multiple languages and how to do so successfully.