Benefits of learning another language at a very young age

There are many important reasons to expose children to another language at an early age. Although people of all ages can learn a second language, studies have shown that children's brains favor early development of languages. Therefore, the optimal time for children to acquire another language is between 2 and 7 years old.

Research shows that the 2 to 5 year olds are particularly well suited to learning a foreign language. According to Curtis (1996) the ability to learn a language is so great in young children that they can learn as many spoken languages as one can allow them to hear systematically and regularly at the same time. There does not seem to be any detriment to developing several languages at the same time.

The benefits of being bilingual are numerous. Learning a second language at an early age:

  • Has a positive effect on intellectual growth;
  • enriches and enhances a child’s mental development;
  • leaves students with more flexibility in thinking, greater sensitivity to languages and a better ear for listening;
  • improves a child’s understanding of his/her native language;
  • gives a child the ability to communicate with people he or she would otherwise not have the chance to know;
  • opens the door to other cultures and helps a child understand and appreciate people from other countries;
  • gives a student a head start in language requirements for college;
  • Increases job opportunities in many careers where knowing another language is a real asset;
  • A key linguistic benefit of early language learning is a more native-like speaking ability;

"Early exposure is the best way for a human child to achieve full and equal native fluency in two languages with no accent or grammatical error" (Start Early to Help Your Child Become Bilingual, Pediatrics for Parents, Vol. 20, Iss.10, 2003)

Will learning of a second language damage the learning of English?

The main fear when it comes to having a child learn a second language is the loss of the ability to fully develop the skills in the main language. This view is based in the understanding that two languages in the brain two languages take up twice as much room as one language. Accordingly, a bilingual possesses two half-filled language spaces that cannot possibly store the necessary vocabulary, grammatical structures, etc.
Not necessarily, the Common Underlying Proficiency (CUP) model argues. According to this model both languages are directly linked to an abstract common underlying system. In other words, this is a non-linguistic processing system which can be accessed by the different languages that an individual is able to speak. This model is sometimes represented by means of a dual iceberg (Figure 1 below). On the surface, the two languages are kept separate. Each is spoken in a specific situation. Below this surface, both languages have separate processing systems to cope with language specific phenomena (sounds, grammatical structures, lexical fields, etc.). However, there is a large area below the surface which represents a central, common area that is equally fed through both (or all different) languages involved.

FIGURE 1:The 'dual-iceberg' representation of bilingual proficiency (Cummins &Swain, 1986: 83)

This theory has a number of important implications:

  • There is one integrated source of thought. Irrespective of the language used, the linguistic skills employed come from the same central system.
  • Linguistic activities in both or more languages all contribute to the cognitive system.
  • The number of languages that can be learnt is not limited by the processing system.
  • Information-processing skills and educational attainmentmay be developed through one, two, or more languages. The languages function as channels that feed the central processing system.
  • If a second language is used, it has to be well developed to function as a channel for the central system (Baker & Jones: 82f.). The process of developing the second language should start earlier rather than later, as early as six months old.

Bilingual children have two or more labels for one object, one idea or one concept. Thus the link between linguistic form and concept may be less fixed (Oren, 1981). The awareness of this looser link that is created in the bilingual can be illustrated by an utterance fromour non-preschool database:10 a 6-year-old German boy, Lars, who acquired English under naturalistic conditions in the USA, was amused by the American children asking what certain English names were in German: "They don't know that names are always the same" (Wode, 1993: 168)

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