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.
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.
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.
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