With newer curriculum and the benefits of multilingualism emerging, more and more parents and investing in resources to teach their kids multiple languages.
Language learning is one of the primary skills children pick up, and one might wonder if exposure to multiple types of grammar and syntaxes might be beneficial for a child. This is simply one of the many stereotypes surrounding bilingualism. In fact, most bilingual students actually show better cognitive skills and language-grasping abilities than their single-language-speaking counterparts! In fact, once you learn a new language, learning the next one becomes that much easier. Bilingual children are at an advantage in this regard as they learn languages at an almost natural pace within a familial environment.
However, let’s see why bilingual children are at a cognitive advantage due to this:
What are the stages of reading development?
Most children start the process of formal language learning in kindergarten. This is when they learn the alphabet and words. However, language comprehension begins much earlier – perhaps as early as birth itself.
Even babies without any language comprehension use syllables and sounds to communicate. The ability to understand and convey emotions is a milestone that eventually leads to later literacy development.
So, before kids even move on to formal reading and writing, there are several “pre-skills” they need to learn. This includes:
- Phonetic awareness – the ability to distinguish various sounds and string them together
- Hearing and absorbing new words – i.e. improving vocabulary
- Listening and recapitulating skills
- Technical skills – reading a book, holding a pencil, etc.
These pre-skills are the building blocks that teachers build on to teach children formal linguistic skills.
Why we want to emphasize this because despite there being thousands of languages across the world – all languages follow some basic structure which includes: phonology and grammar.
There are also some other intangible structural elements such as context and semantics. With exposure to multiple languages, bilingual children have been seen to grasp these contexts quickly and easily. But let’s delve deeper into why that is.
Advantages that bilingual children have
- Bilingual children develop metalinguistic skills early on
Metalinguistic skills refer to the rules that govern languages. This includes grammar as well as the ability to create a message and analyze or process a message.
Bilingual children exposed to multiple languages are home are more easily able to pick up on word and sentence structures than monolingual students. While there is a general belief that exposure to two languages can confuse learning kids, it actually helps them draw parallels between two languages and understand language syntax better.
Overall, they are more aware of sentence hierarchies and can cover a wider range of phonetic skills (depending on the languages) – thereby making them faster language learners in kindergarten.
Perhaps one thing parents need to be aware of here is that bilingual students may not always end up being biliterate. In other words, while they might speak and understand two languages, not everyone can also write and read the two languages.
Biliteracy is strongly encouraged among bilingual kids as it exposes them to wider cultural field. Also, without equal encouragement in both languages, students might also become “stunted” in the language less used.
- Exposure to a wider vocabulary range
By default, children who grow up in bilingual households are exposed to a wider word range than those in monolingual homes. This causes them to pick on a larger set of words as and when in use. In fact, kids as young as 6 months are able to pick up on a switch between languages when exposed to them from birth.
Knowing two languages might also encourage them to find out the corresponding word of one language in another – as well as their antonyms and synonyms. Natural language learning places words within context making it a regular part of their conversation, enriching their vocabulary.
This also fosters a natural curiosity in them. If the two languages used have different sentence structures (eg: subject–object–verb (SOV) languages like Japanese versus subject–verb–object (SVO) languages such as Mandarin), they are more likely to develop stronger literacy skills.
These skills make them more inclined toward picking up complex words and compound sentences later on. Most of the pre-skills gained before kindergarten are intangible but can have valuable gains later on as your child begins formal education.
- Gaining other cognitive skills
As a result of working with and mentally shifting between languages, bilingual students gain many secondary cognitive skills, such as:
- It was found that bilingual students have longer attention spans and better working memory than monolingual students. These can later transfer into other academic skills or behavioral gains.
- On the whole, bilingual students show more executive control across tasks. This means they are more self-disciplined and have higher perseverance. They are more likely to complete difficult tasks and assignments. In later years, they are more likely to develop skills for abstract and creative thinking.
- Bilingual students show better results in multitasking. In a 2004 study, bilingual students were able to balance complex problems such as sorting objects by color and shape. While monolingual students performed equally well while sorting objects by color, they would struggle when a newer factor (sorting by shape) was added into the mix.
- Bilingualism results in better “cognitive flexibility”. This means overall control of your brain’s command center. When students speak in a specific language, they must switch “off” other parts of their brain’s knowledge to prevent slipping into another language they know. This ability to focus uniquely on one thing, context switch, or combine both gives them a healthy ability to resolve conflicts in a structured manner.
Misconceptions about bilingual learning
A common belief many parents harbor is that teaching young children multiple languages can restrict their ability to learn even one. But this is simply us severely restricting the wonderful things kids can do!
In fact, birth to 3 years of age is a great time for young kids to be exposed to multiple languages and cultures. The flexibility of their brain during this time makes it the easiest time for them to learn a new language.
Young kids do not learn language in a structured manner with rules of grammar and syntax bogging them down. They rely on speech patterns, tonal variations, and a general understanding of sentence structures. This natural learning makes it easier for them to learn and switch between a primary and a new language.
Once children learn object permanence (at around 8 months of age), they will easily be able to understand that multiple languages can be used to convey the same thing and that the same thing can have many names in different languages. A hand in English is main in French.
In fact, not just kids but even adults can benefit from learning multiple languages. The cognitive skills gained can help keep one sharp even as one ages and are known to protect against Alzheimer’s.
It’s never too late or too early to learn a new language. Learning multiple languages can also be a huge help later on as it opens doors for various job and travel opportunities.
If you would like to expose your child to English as a secondary language, you can enroll them in our Fun to Chat course which allows them to chat with others in English, allowing them to learn a new language in a natural manner.