Growing up with languages

There are increasingly more language schools offering language classes for children starting as early as ages 2 and 3. The school system has also increasingly advanced the starting age of foreign language learning (from ages 11-12 to 7-8 and even 3-4). Is such a language mix good for children who have not mastered their mother tongue yet? Doesn’t it create confusion? Some conclusions stemming from research on second language acquisition are outlined below.

1. Learning multiple languages from an early age does not have detrimental effects on first language learning

Learning a second language never has any detrimental effects as long as the first language keeps developing normally. A good example is found in our own context where children from Spanish-speaking families start learning Catalan in early childhood, at the age of 2-3, and have no problems in achieving nativelike or near nativelike levels. What parents wrongly interpret as language confusion or language errors are necessary steps in language learning and should not create any anxiety on their own. Obviously, in the case of a foreign language that is not spoken in the local environment, and that is only used 2-3 hours per week, achieving near nativelike levels is practically impossible, but speaking like a native should not necessarily be the goal. In our context, rather than starting age, the key factor is the quantity and quality of second language instruction. There will be no benefits of an early start without enough exposure and high quality input (teaching materials, teachers’ language skills, teachers’ training, etc.). If such learning conditions are created, the benefits in pronunciation and listening skills (sound perception and discrimination) will be the most evident. Another benefit will be the development of a positive attitude toward foreign language learning, a benefit with a long-term impact.

2. The more languages a child learns, the greater their capacity for abstraction, among other cognitive benefits

Learning second languages has cognitive benefits as well. Bilingual or multilingual children have greater cognitive flexibility and understand abstraction in language earlier and better than monolingual children (i.e., the fact that the same object can be referred to in different ways). Bilingualism or multilingualism has also been associated with better attention and task-switching capacities, and even with more creativity. These cognitive benefits are in fact long-term and extend to old-age, helping bilinguals to resist cognitive decline and conditions such as dementia. Beyond cognitive benefits, the bilingual speaker also enjoys valuable social benefits. They have the ability to explore a new culture, communicate with more people and access more information. As a result, they become more aware of linguistic and cultural diversity and more open-minded.

3. A language cannot be learned through watching TV or listening to the radio

Watching movies in their original version with subtitles helps learning a second language, especially in a context like ours where exposure to the foreign language is limited to a few hours per week. However, and especially in the case of children, a language cannot be acquired by simply watching TV. In order for learning to take place, children need to interact face-to-face with adults so that language use is contextualized and adapted to children’s needs. Several studies conducted in the 70’s showed that children who were born to deaf parents and who were only exposed to input from the TV or the radio in the first years of their life were not able to acquire the language. Children are able to learn implicitly and the school should take advantage of this. Learning implicitly means learning while paying attention but without being aware that learning is taking place, in an effortless manner. Implicit learning is the most effective type of learning in the long-term and even adult learners can benefit from it, provided that learning conditions include rich and frequent oral input, interaction opportunities, and native-speaker models.

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Gisela Granena
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About Gisela Granena

I am a lecturer at the Centre for Modern Languages at the UOC. I hold a PhD in Second Language Acquisition from the University of Maryland (USA), an MA in Intercultural Communication from the same university, and a Postgraduate degree in teaching English as a foreign language from the University of Barcelona. My areas of expertise include language acquisition, cognitive psychology and measurement/statistics. I have published research on individual cognitive differences in both instructed and naturalistic SLA contexts; aptitude-treatment interactions; task-based language teaching (TBLT); measures of implicit and explicit language knowledge, and the effects of early and late bilingualism on long-term L2 achievement.
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