At times, grasping the fundamentals of a foreign language can be enough for an adult to throw their hands up and shout “Je ne comprend pas!” It’s often a mind-boggling task to contend with a series of regular and irregular verbs, masculine and feminine nouns, whilst at the same time, stretching the memory bank to remember a dictionary of words.
So, why is it that many children seem to absorb the essentials of a language with comparative ease? They make it seem so effortlessly easy. In fact there is quite a bridge between the language learning ability of an adult and a child. Supported by plenty of researched evidence, many experts now recommend the best time to learn a language is at a very young age.
What is the best age to learn a language?
It seems that children are surprisingly better at learning languages than we are, and the sooner they start, the better. In a recent study, researchers found that babies begin to pick up the subtle tones of their mum’s accent while still in the womb. To complement this, other studies have also shown that very early exposure to a language will positively help define a native pronunciation.
This ability can be linked to the physiological changes that happen in the developing brain of a child. Young children are particularly receptive and learn how to communicate through continual repetition and exposure to their native language. As their brains develop they become hungrier for knowledge and as they continue to learn through imitation and verbal communication they are able to grasp language structures very quickly. Needless to say, as with any subject, the more time a child has to learn a language, the more fluent he or she will eventually become.
What can I do to help my child learn a language?
Chances are, if you’ve returned from a holiday abroad your child may be biting at the bit to continue learning the country’s language; or maybe they are being taught basic French at primary school and want to know more; or perhaps, there is a foreign child who has recently started at school that they want to befriend; whatever the reason, if your child shows an eagerness to learn a language it’s really helpful to keep the momentum going.
A good way to support this is to take an enthusiastic interest in the cultures and customs of other countries. Explain to your child the value of being able to speak a foreign language and the freedom it brings within a country. You may wish to supplement this interest by attending international cultural events to expose your child to the food, smells, music and customs that exist in the country where your chosen language is spoken.
Next, to take it one step further, you can acquire educational DVDs, CDs and books that encourage language development. Also, in certain areas, a number of schemes and lessons are available that teach young children language skills that will no doubt speed up the learning process. Usually there is a nominal fee for each class.
A child will become more articulate as time moves on, especially if they are encouraged to listen closely, learn through imitation and repeat the exercises regularly. Essentially, the more exposure a child gets to languages at an early age, the more they will pick up.
Will it affect my child’s command of English?
Learning a foreign language stimulates development and acts as a complementary subject to English. For example, children may be able to understand the structure of English grammar by learning the composition of other languages. Also, an increased knowledge of foreign vocabulary may help a child learn and compare the new words in English. Of course there may be times when a child experiences a slight confusion with the odd word or phrase, but this is considered to be part of the usual learning experience that can be remedied by clarifying the different points from the foreign language and the mother tongue.
What are the benefits to learning a language at a young age?
Children who are exposed to, and learn foreign languages at an early age enhance their ability to reach high levels of cognitive development, showing a good degree of creativity and flexibility across a broad range of subjects. Using a different language system, written and oral communication skills can vastly improve due to the intensive use of memory and listening skills that are required. As children develop the ability to communicate in a different language, they will start to compare words, sentences and texts, and find similarities as well as differences. This general understanding will help them transfer skills from one subject to another. Children may also reap other benefits such as an increased ability to solve complex problems.
Evaluating the way people live in other countries such as their customs, culture and spoken language, can be an illuminating experience that opens a child’s eyes allowing them to gain a broader outlook of the world. It may also help some children to gain a better understanding of the various cultures of people who live in the surrounding cosmopolitan neighbourhood. This open-minded approach will create more opportunities to communicate with many more people.
Another advantage is linked to work aspirations. Future prospects may become brighter as children who gain fluency in other languages may be more able to develop a deeper understanding of other cultures, which may eventually lead to roles that help improve global communication.
Learning a different language is a fabulous way for you and your child to engage in a new culture and as primary school aged children are at a ripe age to learn – why delay this great opportunity?