In this day and age, multiple language speakers are at a decided advantage. They can converse in and comprehend texts in two languages and as such tend to have a richer experience going through life.
Learning two languages although not impossible, is certainly more difficult for adults. Early childhood has been identified through research, as the best time to learn a second language.
The research lays to rest a common misconception that teaching or speaking to a baby in two languages simultaneously, confuses them.
According to the research, babies begin to learn language sounds while they are still in the womb, that is, before they are even born.
Of course, the mother’s voice in that period is the most prominent voice that they hear and by the time they come into the world, they are able to distinguish between their mother’s language and another language and they show a wider capability to distinguish between various languages.
The world’s languages all put together comprise about 800 sounds and each language makes use of only about 40 of those language sounds (known as phonemes) and they are the difference between one language and another.
The baby, at birth has the gift of differentiating between this 800 sounds, making it easy at that stage for the infant to pick up any language that they are exposed to.
When a baby is between six and 12 months, and they grow up in a household which favors only one language, they become more specialized in the subset of sounds in their native language.
By their first birthdays, these infants in the one language household begin to lose their ability to hear the differences between foreign language sounds.
For a baby who is born into a household where two languages are spoken, they also become likewise attuned to whatever languages they hear from their caregivers and by 11 months, the activity in the baby’s brain reflects the language or languages that they have been exposed to.
The common fears- about the lag in learning one specialized language or confusion and mixing of words from both languages- by parents who refrain from teaching their child two languages can be laid to rest as the research shows that they do not affect the child later on, and the advantages of speaking two languages are numerous;
- Vocabulary sizes of bilingual children, when combined across both languages, have been found to be equal to or greater than those of monolingual children.
- Bilingual adults and children show an improved executive functioning of the brain—that is, they are able to shift attention, switch between tasks, and solve problems more easily.
- The accumulating effect of speaking two languages is thought to translate into protective effects against cognitive decline with aging and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
- There is evidence that being bilingual makes the learning of a third language easier.
Add to that the preservation of our native languages, even as we ensure that our children are adept English language speakers and teaching a child two languages becomes a win-win situation for everyone involved.