Why Young Children Should Learn a Foreign Language

Rachel Hanson
Learning German

Whether your child learns a language that is spoken by family members, friends, a minority community where you live, or simply takes French classes at preschool, the advantages of learning a second language range far beyond the actual linguistic skill of being able to communicate in that language.

Benefits of Early Language Exposure

There are a whole host of benefits of early language exposure that range from sociological awareness to increasing linguistic aptitude. While the debate is still out on when to start a child, experts agree that children learn foreign language more easily.

Phonological Accuracy

While researchers don't quite agree on what age is the cut-off for achieving native-like fluency in a second language, there is widespread agreement, as noted by Patkowski, on the fact that in the realm of phonology (pronunciation), children are virtually the only learners who attain native-like accents. Although some adults (such as highly-trained musicians) are able to become native-like in their pronunciation, becoming virtually indistinguishable from native speakers, children do this almost across the board. The accuracy of pronunciation is one of the easiest ways to determine if an individual learned a foreign language before puberty or afterwards, with those learning the language as children sounding like native speakers of the language.

Morphological Accuracy

In addition to their ease of learning correct pronunciation, children also master morphology much more accurately than adults do, as noted by Newport. Morphology refers to things like adjective agreement in French, Spanish, Italian or German, or declensions (case) in German or Latin. While adult foreign language learners persistently make morphological errors, young learners are usually able to master the morphology of a second language.

Increased Academic Performance

According to Armstrong and Rogers, children who become proficient in a second language often show increased academic performance across the board above and beyond the performances of monolingual children. This general effect applies not only to the mastery of the native language and the second language as school subjects, but also to, for example, math class. Some refer to second-language learning as gymnastics for the brain, strengthening and tuning the brain's ability to make connections, deduce causes and effects, and remember large amounts of information.

Sociological Acceptance and Appreciation

Monolingual children may be ambivalent or even have a negative attitude toward other cultures. However, according to a study by Riestra and Johnson, children who study a foreign language, and thereby the culture and people associated with that language, develop a positive view on this language and culture. In the modern world, this type of acceptance of the world at large and the people living all over the globe can contribute to a positive world view and a more peaceful community.

Bilingual Effects

While young learners often learn the language itself more accurately than post-pubescent learners do, and may exhibit advanced academic performance, there are also cognitive benefits of becoming bilingual. The following reasons for having your child learn a foreign language only apply if you child becomes functionally bilingual (using both of the languages on a daily basis).

Increased Metalinguistic Knowledge

According to several studies, including this 1988 study by Galambos and Hakuta, children who have become bilingual have a firmer grasp on metalinguistics, which refers to the categories and the facts that pertain to a language system. While young children who speak or sign one language use all the categories (noun, verb, etc.) appropriately once they've learned their first language, they don't have much explicit knowledge about language. Monolingual children have been shown to rely on semantic knowledge, knowing whether a sentence 'makes sense' or not. For example, a monolingual child will say that the sentence, "Cars run anxiously on clouds and the moon.' is grammatically incorrect because it doesn't 'make sense', bilingual children report that while it's grammatically correct, it's a silly sentence. This is a manifestation of metalinguistic knowledge; the advanced metalinguistic skills of bilingual children will serve them well both in their own language, as well as in learning new languages, not to mention thinking critically.

Increased Cognitive Control

Cognitive control refers to a person's ability to filter, sort, and select information, and according to studies by Bialystok et al., bilingual people (children and adults alike) have better cognitive control than monolinguals do. The theory is that having, and using, two different languages on a regular basis requires constant usage of this cognitive skill, which enhances the skill. Tests in which participants must ignore irrelevant information in order to selectively attend to the information they need to acquire, show that monolinguals do markedly worse than bilinguals do. This advantage in cognitive control can serve children well throughout the rest of their lives, but note that when one of the two languages is no longer used, the cognitive control effect disappears.

Children Learning Foreign Languages

For all of these benefits, learning a second language is a positive process and skill for children. Whether you want your child to reap the academic or cognitive benefits of bilingualism, or you want him to be aware that there are lots of other peoples living on the planet, learning a second language is a good way to work towards these goals.

There are several ways for your child to learn. If you have a school program, sign your child up. Alternatively, you can invest in software, such as Chinese language DVDs, or do online French lessons for kids after school. Whatever program or language you choose, the benefits are many, and many children enjoy foreign language learning immensely.

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Why Young Children Should Learn a Foreign Language