There are certainly many practical advantages of learning a second language, such as being able to communicate with people from different cultures in their native tongue. It also serves to open up career, academic and relationship opportunities that may otherwise have been closed.
But increasingly it has been recognized that learning a second language at an early age may also give kids an edge academically. Not just as a skill to be put into practise, but it actually works to enhance the learning and cognitive ability of the child in many not so obvious ways.
It’s Easier to Learn Languages at an Early Age
Humans are social beings and use language as a means of communicating simple and complex ideas with each other; a key strategy of our survival as a species. It’s imperative that a child learns to understand the language that they hear and they do it remarkably quickly in comparison to adults.
In fact, the ability to acquire a new language is greatly excelled until children reach between 8 and 12 months old in which they start to hone in on the sounds of their native language and become less attuned to the sounds of other languages.
As we age, our ability for learning a second language greatly reduces following puberty for the reason that by this age, we have a bias towards the tones and speech elements of our first language known as phenomes. It’s much harder at this point to overcome these biases.
This is not to say that there is a point of no return, and no matter our age we can all benefit from learning a new language. Even if we are not looking to increase academic performance, we can still use it to connect with others.
The Links: Language Learning and Cognitive Performance
So, why exactly should you commit the effort to exposing your child to an additional language when they are young? As we touched upon above, there are many cognitive benefits to learning a second language. Overall, learning a second language improves academic performance and enhances learning and there is plenty of research to demonstrate this.
Exercises the Brain to Improve Memory
People often compare your brain to a muscle and while it is not actually a muscle it does perform better the more it is used. When learning a language you are memorizing the rules and the phonetics of that language and so to put it simply: you are exercising your brain.
If a child is learning multiple languages, there are more rules to remember, more variations of how to reference an object, a verb or a noun and so therefore, they are using their brain to remember these rules more than if they were learning only one language.
Jeffrey D. Karpicke, PhD of the American Psychological Association outlines how language relates to the use of memory and how memory can then be improved the more it is exercised which then goes on to benefit the ability to learn more in other subjects.
Learning Second Language Improves Test Scores
It is shown by Armstrong, P. W., & Rogers, J. D. that children who were taking 30 minute lessons in Spanish three times a week for one semester scored higher on standardized mathematic and language tests than children who did not take the lessons.
This supports the idea that polyglots are also better able to perceive relevant information and disregard the irrelevant than their monolingual counterparts.
Tonal Language and Learning Music
The Chinese languages of Mandarin and Cantonese are examples of tonal language in that they incorporate the pitch and certain inflections in the voice to convey different meanings. For example a variation on the way that the word “Ma” is pronounced can dictate its meaning as either being “mother” or “horse” – not a wise idea to get them confused!
Research has recognized that speakers of tonal language are better able to identify pitch and tonal changes giving them an edge when learning music. And just as there are benefits for learning a second language, there are many benefits of playing a musical instrument that interestingly overlap between the two.
Is this because music is considered a language of its own and utilizes similar thought patterns and cognitive functions?
Supports Native Language Learning
It was considered in the past that having a child learn an additional language at the same time as learning their native language would be confusing for them and generally detrimental to their learning.
However, research has indicated that children who learn two languages in early childhood effectively become native speakers of both the languages at once. This helps them to understand the inner workings and the rules of each language, allowing them to draw comparisons and improve comprehension of both simultaneously.
Potentially Guards against Certain types of Dementia
There are different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. It is described as a group of symptoms which contribute to the decline in cognitive ability which has an impact on daily life. These include impairment in memory, communication, perception and reasoning.
There is evidence to suggest that speaking two languages can delay the progress of three types of dementia by an average of 4 and half years. Alissa Sauer of Alzheimers.net states that it is not yet known why, but supposes that it relates to the repeated use of a specific part of the brain that is responsible for language.
Practical Benefits of Learning Additional Languages
Since, as we have discussed, children are better able to take on additional languages when they are young, there is no doubt that childhood is the best time to teach them. Being bilingual from a young age is a huge advantage that they can reap the rewards from indefinitely.
Greater Career and Academic Opportunities
Employers are attracted to prospective employees who are able to speak multiple languages and it looks fantastic on a resume. Not only does it mean you can communicate with customers and clients from other countries opening up the possibility of higher paying roles but it shows your commitment and ability to learn and understand.
When considering what colleges are looking for in high school students, having a second language under your belt is a factor that impresses them for similar reasons that it would impress an employer. It also opens up the potential to study abroad and be accepted onto international internships, allowing your child to network with peers in their field whilst studying abroad.
Networking and familiarity abroad further opens up opportunities for securing a job in another country too giving them greater flexibility with how they can use their education to secure their future!
Increased Cultural Awareness
Language and culture go hand in hand. A language and the development of languages over time is a reflection of the history of a culture and can demonstrate how the world is perceived by people of a particular location.
It is reasonable to say that the language we learn as our native tongue can have an influence on our thought patterns, (such as we discussed earlier that tonal languages can increase the recognition of pitch and tone in music) does this influence have an effect on the evolution of culture?
Questions like that can be answered by exploration, leaning multiple languages lets us engage in different cultures, communicate with people who come from distinct cultural backgrounds and share an appreciation for how language and culture relate.
It’s a Huge Achievement!
Having learned to speak a new language, whether you are a young child learning to speak for the first time or an adult planning on visiting a new land, it is a huge achievement. And having put all the effort and work into learning this new skill you would be right to feel proud of yourself and confident in your abilities.
For a school age child, this kind of confidence is a great motivator in their academic life. Knowing that they have the capabilities to learn more and build new skills boosts their propensity to carry on learning, to learn different things and to do well at them so that they can be proud in knowing that they are on their way to a successful future.