How to Help Your Child Talk and Grow Smarter: Learning Two Languages

Parents used to feel anxious about allowing their babies to learn two languages at once, for fear it would damage their language skills in the long term. Those days have gone. Happily, for our global society, the weight of evidence now shows that bilingual children are at an advantage in many ways over their monolingual peers.

Babies who hear two languages or more, before and soon after birth, become skilled at choosing the right brain tool for intellectual tasks. As they continue through life, maintaining their skill in two languages, they even have some protection from the onset of Alzheimers. They can stave off the start of the brain disease for up to five years, according to York University, Toronto, with their improved language tools.

Active brain
Your brain stays nimble and works harder when you speak two languages, building up “cognitive reserve”. In other words, you need to use it or lose it. The more languages you speak, the more protection your brain gains against the disease. If you stop using both languages, your brain loses the advantage.

Babies who hear and see more than one language in their first months are able to attend carefully. Research carried out in McGill University, Montreal, and the University of British Colombia shows that babies of a few months already recognize features of both languages, such as the segmentation of words and the differences in facial expression of the speaker. These skills are important in developing language skills, and learning them while young gives those lucky babies a head start.

Early skills
Babies and young children learn both languages simultaneously, and switch easily from one to the other. Some speak one language with their mother and another with their father, while others manage one language at home and another when at nursery or preschool.

Language learning takes place most rapidly between birth and 3 years or age. Children continue to learn until 10 or 12 years, but after that time find it harder to learn new languages. Feral children, deprived of communication in their early years, find it impossible to catch up completely, and spend their lives disadvantaged by poor language skills.

The message to parents is clear. If your child has access to more than one language, take advantage of the opportunity to help your child talk in both and encourage extra brain activity.

If your baby only hears one language, introduce a new one well before he reaches 10 years of age, preferably even before he’s 3 years old.

You may be too old to pick it up a new skill as easily as your child does, but it’s worth learning a second language yourself. You’ll keep your mind as active as you can, to give yourself as much protection as possible against later brain problems.

Further Information

How to Help Your Child Talk and Grow Smarter:Amazon Kindle eBook: 2011National Geographic: Bilingual Babies: 2009

School of Communication Sciences & Disorders, McGill University, Montreal: Word segmentation in monolingual and bilingual infant learners of English and French: Linda Polka & Megha Sundara

Science Now: An Infants Refine Tongue: 2011

Royal Society: Brain Waves Module Two: Neuroscience: Implications for Education and Lifelong Learning: 2011


  1. Hi Fran,
    I know this is the accepted view, however I know that it is not always the case. For a combination of reasons, my younger sister was brought up on an even mix of Croatian, English and Japanese until the age of nearly three. While this continued she spoke only ug-ug words – despite all efforts at help. Alarmed, our parents cut down to just English and she spoke quite clearly within a couple of weeks. Later, she was able to juggle all three quite proficiently but it appears the 'filing cabinet' got too mixed up to be able to lay hands on the right word with all three versions together.

    I also know it's heresy in speech-specialist circles, but I'm convinced that people are pre-programmed to a certain language – or a certain language root. Coming from a multicultural family that has lived all over the globe, I've experienced numerous instances of examples of the same environment and language input leading to wildly differing language use and expression difference. It seems to be most obvious in difficulties with grammar and incorrect word usage, which has no relation to the amount of time spent studying or using the language.

  2. Hi there,
    Thanks for your comments. I think you've given a good illustration of the fact that we're all individuals and parents often know best! The main point about language is whether a child understands - the words come later. Your sister was clearly OK on understanding but a bit overloaded - as you say, it was hard for her to get at the right 'file'. Well done to her parents for taking the load off temporarily with such a good effect.
    As for the nature/nurture debate, it still continues. Language is one of our highest levels of intellectual function and some of us tend to be better than others: hence 10% of population with communication difficulties. I worry that taking the 'nature' view too strongly may encourage us to think we can't do anything about language problems, and that's not the case. Some research starting at Frenchay Hospital in Bristol will look at types of intervention and their outcomes - should be useful.


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