Language learning always fascinates me, so I took a fresh look at language learning and bilingual learning. As usual, I found some very interesting information to share with you.
The New York Times, on March 17, 2012, published an article titled, Why Bilinguals Are Smarter¹. They say, “Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.” Those are pretty sweeping claims.Here’s what they have to say. Although a bilingual is only using one language at a time, both language systems are active and create interference. This is not a handicap, as previously thought, but an advantage. “It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.”
As a result of this kind of mental gymnastics, bilingual children are more adept as solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. They are better at problems involving sorting than monolingual children. They are, also, more aware of their surroundings which translates into more efficient use of their brains. The higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Parents.com quotes Karen MacGilvray, director of education at Language Stars. “Learning early on that an object can be described in more than one way (house, maison, casa), promotes flexibility in thinking and overall creativity.”
Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, D.C., says, “A young child’s brain is wired to pick up language naturally. Between birth and puberty, children can learn multiple languages and echo accents easily.”
MacGilvray adds, “Parents are realizing how important it is to raise their children as global citizens. Inspiring enthusiasm for a second language is the best head start you can give your child.”
So what does this mean to you as a parent? For my Malaysia readers, keep up the good work. Virtually every Malaysian family that speaks two or more languages in the home. You are helping, not hindering your child’s learning. The best way to introduce a child to a foreign language is through immersion. This means no translating new words into the child’s first language. If you are a bilingual family, take advantage of each one speaking their native tongue to the child.
For my American readers, find ways for your child to be exposed to other languages besides English. If you don’t have family members who speak different languages, consider hiring a babysitter who will speak another language with your child. Since the fastest growing and largest minority group in America are Spanish speakers, consider preschool exposure to native Spanish speakers.
Don’t worry about confusing a pre-talker by introducing foreign words at the same time as she’s learning to speak her primary language. “There doesn’t seem to be any limit to the number of sounds a human mind can store at a young age,” explains Francois Thibaut, director of The Language Workshop for Children in New York City. “Children have an innate ability to tell one language from another.”
Here are some language learning activities for toddlers and preschoolers. Everyone who has time with your child should do these activities in their own mother tongue to give your child a rich language heritage.
- Sing songs, recite nursery rhymes, teach finger plays, and social games like peek-a-boo.
- Talk about everything you are doing while with your child. Describe your actions and everything your child can see. This ties the language to an act or object making the words come alive and have meaning for the child.
- Call things by name. When your child can identify an object you name, expand their vocabulary by describing its color, shape, size, and weight. Begin this long before your child can ‘say’ the words.
- Lead by example. Don’t copy the child’s baby talk. Model correct grammar, complete sentences, and proper pronunciation.
- Talk with, not at, your child. Encourage conversation by listening and then responding. Carry on back and forth conversations. Pay attention, listen with your eyes.
- Use lots of details. Elaborate on anything your child says. Build complete sentences with lots of descriptive words.
- Ask questions that require more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.