There are many reasons why you may want your child to know more than one language. Here’s how you can nurture your child’s multilingual ability.
How do children become bilingual?
Bilingual children usually acquire both languages simultaneously from birth or pick up a second language before puberty. Usually they speak in one of the two languages first and at one point then start to freely switch among the two depending on who they speak to.
Is it better to expose Your Child to one language at a time?
No. Multiple studies have shown that infants are able to pick up multiple languages without delay and achieve language milestones at more or less the same pace as monolinguals. While children can acquire a second language later in life, they may find it harder to acquire that language at a baby’s level.
How do infants learn multiple languages at once?
Babies are born with a brain wired to acquire languages, but scientists are still unable to pinpoint the mechanisms behind how this works. All they know is that the infant’s brain can establish the most neural connections during their first 1,000 days of life. This ability allows them to quickly pick up, process, and learn the information around them.
Why do older children find it harder to learn a new language?
After the age of 3, a child’s brain begins to prune out any unused neural connections to allow the brain circuit to become as efficient as possible. When the pruning starts, any new connections will form at a much slower rate, which means that information will also be processed at a slower pace.
Will my child mix up their languages?
No. Bilingual children may use words from one language while speaking the other from time to time, but they aren’t confused between the two languages. When speaking to monolinguals, bilingual children are careful to use just the relevant language. A study conducted by psychologists from Concordia University and Princeton University showed that bilingual infants could distinguish between their two native languages.
Can my child pick up another language from watching videos?
No. Infants acquire languages through social interaction – they need auditory, visual, and tactile cues to pick up a language. While television is visual, a baby’s brain cannot process moving images on a screen as separate parts of a whole. It may learn to repeat something, say “don’t forget to subscribe”, but has no idea what that means. It’s like if a child of an airplane flying in the sky, they will not recognize that the airplane is not part of the sky and comprehend the image as one item without any meaning. Only once they actually see a plane flying and you explain to them that this thing is called an airplane, they have learned a new word and understood its meaning. Instead of resorting to videos, allow your little one to have interaction with a native speaker daily — 15 minutes a day is enough to teach them a lot.
Should we speak in a second language to our baby if we are not fluent ?
Infants are very sensitive to languages and benefit when their parents speak in their mother tongue or a language in which they can express themselves with all the nuances a language has to offer. If you are not a proficient speaker of your desired second language, it’s best to let your baby acquire another language from a native speaker. This can be accomplished by hiring a nanny who is fluent in your desired language or allowing your little one to interact daily with a native speaker. When they reach school age, their language development will also be heavily influenced by interacting with their teachers and peers. You can start speaking to your child in the non-native language at this stage, but they may begin correcting you instead!
What happens if we wait to expose my child to a second language after puberty?
Puberty changes a child’s brain structure, including the way they process a new language. When a teenager tries to pick up a new language, they learn new words by comparing the meanings to those of their native language. They may also have trouble grasping the complexities of a language, such as pronunciation, gender markers and morphemes. Their brain is now learning – instead of acquiring – the language. It is much harder for humans to be fluent in a language they learned.
My child is over 3 years old. Can they still pick up another language and speak it at a native level?
Absolutely. A child’s brain is still forming neural connections more rapidly than teenagers and adults. They will just need more time to acquire the language. Also, as children grow older, their ability to pick up languages will be influenced by external factors that are learned over time, such as confidence and cultural influences.
Ketsupa Jirakarn (Mental health specialist) (31 March 2021)
- Bilingualism, Linguistic Society of America
- Raising Bilingual Children, Linguistic Society of America
- Bilingual Infants Control Their Languages as They Listen, The PNAS
- TV And Videos Don't Help Very Young Children Learn New Words, First Things First
- Raising Thai-English bilingual children in a native Thai family: Worth a try or waste of time? Department of Linguistics, Thammasat University
- The differences in the receptive and productive vocabulary size of a bilingual boy speaking English and Turkish, Science Direct
- Receptive Bilingualism - Understanding but not speaking a language, Multilingual Parenting
- Distinction between language acquisition and language learning: A comparative study, Research Gate:
- Brain Architecture, Harvard University Center of the Developing Child