Much media attention has recently been focused on the importance of early learning experiences on brain development. Newsweek devoted a special edition to the critical first 3 years of a child's life and indicated that there is a "window of opportunity" for second language learning starting at 1 year of age. A February 1997 article in Time magazine suggested that foreign languages should be taught to children as early as possible. With so many demands already placed on children, parents might ask: Is it important that my child learns a second language at a young age? Why? What options are available?
What Are the Benefits of Knowing a Second Language?
In addition to developing a lifelong ability to communicate with more people, children may derive other benefits from early language instruction, including improved overall school performance and superior problem-solving skills. Knowing a second language ultimately provides a competitive advantage in the workforce by opening up additional job opportunities.
Students of foreign languages score statistically higher on standardized tests conducted in English. In its 1992 report, College Bound Seniors: The 1992 Profile of SAT and Achievement Test Takers, the College Entrance Examination Board reported that students who averaged 4 or more years of foreign language study scored higher on the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) than those who had studied 4 or more years in any other subject area. In addition, the average mathematics score for individuals who had taken 4 or more years of foreign language study was identical to the average score of those who had studied 4 years of mathematics. These findings are consistent with College Board profiles for previous years.
Students of foreign languages have access to a greater number of career possibilities and develop a deeper understanding of their own and other cultures. Some evidence also suggests that children who receive second language instruction are more creative and better at solving complex problems. The benefits to society are many. Americans fluent in other languages enhance our economic competitiveness abroad, improve global communication, and maintain our political and security interests.
Immersion programs allow children to spend part or all of the school day learning in a second language. In full (total) immersion programs, which are available in a limited number of schools, children learn all of their subjects (math, social studies, science, etc.) in the second language. Partial immersion programs operate on the same principle, but only a portion of the curriculum is presented in the second language. In this type of program, a child may learn social studies and science in Spanish or French in the morning and learn mathematics and language arts in English in the afternoon. In both cases, the second language is the medium for content instruction rather than the subject of instruction. Children enrolled in immersion programs work toward full proficiency in the second language and usually reach a higher level of competence than those participating in other language programs.
FLES programs are more common than immersion programs. A second language is presented as a distinct subject, much as science or social studies. Typically, the course is taught three to five times per week. Depending on the frequency of the classes and the opportunity for practice, children in these programs may attain substantial proficiency in the language studied.
FLEX programs introduce students to other cultures and to language as a general concept. Time is spent exploring one or more languages or learning about language itself. The emphasis is not on attaining proficiency. Although some proficiency may be attained with a once- or twice- per-week program emphasizing the use of a specific language, parents should not expect children to attain fluency in such programs. These programs, however, can provide a basis for later learning.
Will a Second Language Interfere With My Child's English Ability?
In most cases, learning another language enhances a child's English ability. Children can learn much about English by learning the structure of other languages. Common vocabulary also helps children learn the meaning of new words in English. Experimental studies have shown that no long-term delay in native English language development occurs in children participating in second language classes, even in full immersion programs.
In fact, children enrolled in foreign language programs score statistically higher on standardized tests conducted in English. A number of reports have demonstrated that children who have learned a second language earn higher SAT scores, particularly on the verbal section of the test. One study showed that by the fifth year of an immersion program, students outperformed all comparison groups and remained high academic achievers throughout their schooling.
If My Child Is Enrolled in a Language Program at School, What Can I Do To Help?
Most importantly, encourage your child's interest in the language and in other cultures. Show him or her that you value the ability to speak a second language. Attend cultural events that feature music, dance, or food from the country or countries where the language is spoken. If possible, provide some books, videos, or other materials in the second language. If you are familiar with the language yourself, read to your child. Summer programs offering international exchange are suitable for older children and offer valuable opportunities to speak a second language and explore a different culture firsthand. Children normally live with a host family, which provides them with a safe and sheltered environment where they can practice their language skills. Nov. 4, 2002 -- It's never too soon -- or too late for a child to learn a second language. Children who learn to speak two languages at once sound like a native in both tongues. What's more, they learn to talk at the same speed as kids who learn only a single language.
The findings come from a study led by Laura-Ann Petitto, PhD, director of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory for language and child development at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H. At this week's meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Petitto reported a study of 15 children who learned a second language at various ages.
The children learned French and English; Spanish and French; or Russian and French. They also included children in French-speaking communities whose deaf parents taught them sign language. Children began learning the second language at birth, at age 2-3 years, at age 4-6 years, or at age 7-9 years.
"The earlier a child was exposed to a second language, the better the child did," Petitto tells WebMD. "This flies in the face of educational policy that says expose a child to only to one language at first. This does not support the holding policy that today is rampant in education. A child is not confused by a second language or delayed in learning the community language."
No matter what age these kids began to learn a second tongue, they learned it better if they picked it up in their families or communities than if they learned it in a classroom setting. And while bilingual children didn't learn to speak any sooner or later than single-language kids, they did get one extra advantage besides their added fluency.
"Interestingly, bilingual children are better than [single-language] children in aspects of [thinking] that require them to switch attention," Petitto says. "Because they are switching attention between two languages, a byproduct is enhancement in activities that use this skill."
Petitto tested the children on several aspects of language -- including the types of words and grammar they learned, the sounds they made, and whether, to a native speaker, they had native- or foreign-sounding accents. While children who first learned one language and then learned another quickly became fluent in their second tongue, they were never quite as excellent as those who learned two languages at once.
"We tested children on the whole landscape of human language -- and the earlier they were exposed to a second language, the more masterful they were in each of these areas," Petitto says. "So later-exposed children can say lots of words in French and Russian, but their second language had a heavy accent and they didn't have as good grammar. They would immediately be identified as a foreign speaker." Cognitive Development
Numerous studies have found that children who learn second languages at an early age receive a boost in their cognitive development. Language learning boosts children's critical thinking and problem solving skills, helping them outperform non-language learning peers on standardized tests such as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (according to a 2007 study in Harwich, Massachusetts) and the SATs (according to a 2007 report by College Board). Language learning helps young students acquire skills that help them succeed in other subjects, such as mathematics, and helps increase their reading skills in their native language.
Language is made up of small units called phonemes, which each represent a particular sound. Phonemes may be assigned to particular letters (such as B) or clusters of letters (such as the vowel sound "ea" in "bear"). When children are very young, their ears are well attuned to the subtle differences between phonemes, since they must use this to understand the meaning of words. As a result, young language learners can better understand and imitate the pronunciation of foreign words, and develop more natural, native-sounding accents than older language learners.
Learning a second language early can help children better comprehend the wide and diverse world around them. Understanding the culture and history of a language and its speakers goes along with understanding the language's vocabulary and grammar. Learning a language connected to their family heritage can help children develop interest in their cultural history and feel a greater sense of connection; learning any language can help them develop interest in another country or part of the world.
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