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First Words, Second Languages

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Unless your family is bilingual or bicultural, you might not have considered exposing your little ones to a foreign language before they've mastered the basics of English. But consider this: Many experts believe that introducing children to a second language as early as possible fosters healthy brain development, encourages positive social skills, and lays a solid foundation for effective communication skills that will last a lifetime.

The Benefits of Second Language Learning
In addition to being able to communicate with people from other countries and cultures, research has shown that learning a second language enhances intellectual development and improves overall school performance. Students of foreign languages tend to score higher on standardized tests, including both verbal and math portions of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). They show more advanced problem solving skills and a clearer understanding of English structure and vocabulary. And adults who are fluent in a foreign language often have better career opportunities than those who aren't.

But the benefits of teaching our children foreign languages aren't just personal: They're global. If more Americans become fluent in languages other than English, it will enhance our economic competitiveness, strengthen our political interests, and improve our ability to maintain peace and security throughout the world.

"There are all sorts of wonderful advantages to (teaching) a language early," says Nancy Rhodes, Director of Foreign Language Education at the Center for Applied Linguistics. "It introduces a child to another culture, another way of saying things, and the idea that we're all living in a global society." Besides, many experts believe it's easier to learn a second language--or third, or fourth--the younger you start.

"One of the best reasons for starting early is that young children are learning language anyway," says Rhodes. "Their brains are geared up for that." She adds that the best way to learn a language is through hands-on activities, such as games, songs, and stories -- the types of lessons young children are often more receptive to than adolescents and adults.

"You can say the same thing about staring early with just about anything," says Rhodes, "but I think one way that language is very different from other things is that you do need to start early in order to develop native-like pronunciation." Studies have shown that young children are capable of pronouncing all the sounds used in every known language. As a child ages, however, the brain loses its ability to pronounce sounds that aren't used in languages the child has learned.

Boosting Brain Power
There also appear to be neurological benefits to starting second language learning as early as possible. Research conducted by neurologists at University College London indicated that learning a second language increases the density of grey matter -- the brain tissue essential to processing information -- in one area of the brain. They found that the degree to which the grey matter increased was directly related to how proficient a person had become in the second language and the age at which he or she began learning. The younger the subjects were when they learned a second language, the denser their grey matter.

According to Dr. Jeannette Vos, an educational trainer, researcher, and co-author of The Learning Revolution (Network Educational Press Ltd, 2001), "Before the age of eight, eighty percent of your neurological pathways have been formed, so if you take advantage of this explosion that's going on in the brain then obviously you're going to have more brain power. The more you learn as a young child the more intelligent you will be as an adult." She likens brain development to the branches of a tree, saying, "When a child is young, any (neurological) pathways that aren't being used will be pruned."

What You Can Do
Even parents who aren't fluent in a second language can encourage their children to learn, says Rhodes, offering suggestions for making foreign language learning fun for the whole family. "Of course there's a limit to how much you can teach when you don't have any background in the language," she says, "but you can always expose your child to video tapes, audio tapes, movies, and everything that you can do without having to speak the language yourself."

Rhodes also suggests starting or joining a playgroup with families who speak the language you want your child to learn. That way, she says, "your child can see the language spoken in a very natural setting. Just playing with another three-year-old, (your child) can pick up the language in a totally natural way." Finding babysitters who speak a foreign language is another way to expose your children to the language in a natural setting.

Vos also recommends watching foreign language videos as a way to engage your child in learning a second language. Songs are another great way to introduce your children to a foreign language, as are picture books and stories. Establish a celebration day, she suggests, where once a month or so you celebrate another country with food and costumes from that culture and songs, books and videos in that language. You can incorporate the second language into any activity, she adds, from playing store to making a snack to taking a leisurely walk.

The More (Languages) The Merrier
Some parents worry that learning a foreign language too early might interfere with a child's ability to master English. Not so, say the experts. "For almost all children," Rhodes explains, "(learning a second language) actually helps a child's native language skills. It helps them with vocabulary and understanding what language is in general. So there's no negative side and a lot of positives for learning their native language."

Whatever you do, says Vos, remember that "language learning and any kind of learning has to be fun." It's easy to make language learning fun. Sing. Read. Talk. Enjoy a video. Have a party. Introduce your child to the world and watch his brain blossom!

Visit for quality educational products to help you and your children start learning a new language today!

For more information
Center for Applied Linguistics -
Early Foreign Language Learning -
National Network for Early Language Learning -

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First Words, Second Languages