By Meredith Sheldon
As children develop, we know how important walking, talking and learning their shapes and colors are to their learning foundation. What might not be so evident is how important learning a second language can be.
People can begin speaking a second language as early as birth, according to Dr. Tim Conway, director and neuropsychology researcher at The Morris Center in Gainesville. Children start watching their parents’ mouths move as young as six months. By 10 months, the language part of their brains is active and ready to learn.
We have all heard the saying that younger minds grasp language better. But, Conway said this is not exactly true. At a young age, we are not strong in one language. Therefore, we do not get confused between the language we know and do not know. “It’s easier to pick up English and German at the same time because your brain doesn't know one language better than the other,” he said. “It blends them together and slowly differentiates.”
Schools are a great venue for language immersion and education. Second languages are taught as early as Pre-K and the most common second languages introduced are Spanish and Chinese. Conway said that, ideally, students should work on speaking the language first. Then they can work on reading skills and lastly writing skills. “Don’t start with letters. Start with movements from the mouth,” said Conway. “Once they have the sounds down pat and can compare and contrast sounds, then add abstract letters.”
Immersion and frequent practice for long durations is key to mastering a second language. Start with basic concepts before moving on to complex vocabulary and grammar. If students are not receiving a second language education in school, they can partake in immersion summer camps, according to Lisa Shiavoni, a licensed school psychologist and owner of Milestones in the Making.
Learning another language can provide young children many skills. Bilingual children have better communication skills, improved speech patterns, stronger focus and better reading comprehension. “It makes for a more flexible brain and they will be more flexible learners,” she said. It will also give them stronger problem solving and multi-tasking skills since their brains are used to switching languages.
If you do not speak another language, but you want to teach your child one, there are many ways to approach the situation. Sign up for online language classes with your child. Order language learning books and activities and do them with your little one. There are also language teaching apps, such as Duolingo and Babbel, that can be fun activities for you and your kiddo to do together.
It is never too late to pick up a second language, and approaching it as a family can be an easy way to keep up with your language education. “Your whole life your brain can make new connections,” said Conway. “There’s only one point when the brain’s plasticity stops, and you know when that is? Death.”