Post No.: 0210
This post essentially follows on from Post No.: 0132 about how children pick up their first language…
Language is common for all humans, except in rare cases of aphasia caused by brain damage or social trauma, or when children are raised with no exposure to language at all. Nearly everyone knows how to at least speak one language.
Understanding at least a second language is pretty standard in lots of countries around the world too, for political (the history of a country) and/or cultural (e.g. being exposed to a lot of media in a certain language) reasons. Learning a second (or third, etc.) language indisputably has social, cultural and potential economic advantages.
Like learning a first language, the earlier one learns the easier it is, with children starting to learn a second language before the age of 10 highly likely attaining full native competence. But again, like trying to learn a first language, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible after this age to learn a second language even though it requires progressively more effort and dedication to.
Now learning a second language doesn’t have a negative impact on learning a first language – a child may initially learn fewer words in each language since his/her language exposure is divided but by adulthood this difference is likely to disappear and the total vocabulary across both languages will eventually outstrip the vocabulary of monolingual people. (Having a more expansive vocabulary, in general, will help you to recognise a lot of etymologically related words in other languages in the same or nearby language family (e.g. the romance languages, the Germanic languages) via cognates, loanwords or doublets. This will therefore help you to learn these other languages more quickly.)
A factor to account for is that children prefer to speak the language their peers speak rather than their parents speak. In the homes of immigrants where no English is spoken, for instance, it’s extremely common for children to understand but not fully fluently speak the language of their parents by the time they reach puberty. The best predictor of whether such children keep their parents’ language is whether they’re regularly involved in a community that also speaks that language (e.g. extended family, friends, schools or maybe frequent holidays back to the parents’ homeland) hence it’s best to place them in an immersion school or other environment where other children mainly only speak that language, so that they’ll more likely become fully bilingual.
Therefore it’s not enough to simply speak to them in a second language at an early age – they must ideally form and interact with a peer group of children who use this language as their lingua franca in order to have the best chance of them becoming bilingual. A special motivation to speak a particular language will of course also help (e.g. if a child has interests in a particular foreign culture).
Switching back and forth between different languages arguably involves a kind of cognitive control that is central to our ability to plan, think flexibly about problems, and inhibit and replace undesirable habits with new behaviours i.e. some of the cognitive abilities that make up our ‘executive function’ (EF). For example, to plan for retirement, think laterally, or the ability to stop an automatic or pre-potent response such as eating all the doggy biscuits in one go. Woof.
Bilingual people tend to perform better than monolingual people in tests of EF, such as a ‘go/no-go’ task (a task that tests a participant’s attention and impulsivity, to ‘go’ when they should, and ‘no-go’ when they shouldn’t) – but we must bear in mind that these are only correlational results thus causality is hard to conclude because there may be many confounding factors, such as general socio-economic factors, educational level, cultural differences and/or a whole host of other possibilities; and a problem is that a lot of these variables tend to cluster together tightly (e.g. educational level and income level). The direction of causality might even be possibly reversed i.e. possessing a higher executive function leads a person to more likely learn a second language?
There are some parents in monolingual cultures and households who really want their children to learn a second language (often of these parents’ choosing, out of the thousands out there, that the child might not end up using much in his/her own future) because they believe it’ll improve their child’s general intelligence or some other reason. But until any large-scale experimental study comes out, the jury is still currently out, as of posting, as to whether being multilingual causally helps one to be better at other types of tasks. (The same caution must be applied regarding any other correlational data or non-experimental study concerning any other subject or topic.) There’s confidently no inherent harm in learning to speak, read and write in another language or possibly two, and the social and cultural benefits are confirmed. Yet if you really want to be good at a specific task then directly learn and practise that task – so if you want to be good at a particular language then learn that language, if you want to understand astronomy then learn astronomy, and so forth.
Another thing to bear in mind is that the more time spent learning one thing, whatever it is, the less time can be potentially spent learning other things at the same time or age. You can try to learn everything if you have the time and opportunity – but, particularly when it comes to children, make sure you still allow time for regular physical activities, free play (unstructured activities where imagination is used rather than following a strict lesson plan) and social play, for there are only ever 24 hours a day for everyone. So don’t be narrow or single-minded – as long as a life is healthily balanced and full of edifying activities then you can’t push a child to do or learn anything more without giving something else up that’s possibly more to his/her desires and strengths.
Having said that, most children will enjoy learning another language if it’s taught in a fun and engaging way, and if done socially. Plus the awareness of other languages and cultures is useful for understanding diversity in this world even if they never become fully fluent in a second language. And again, the window of optimal opportunity to learn is when they’re young. There are things that people can only do when as adolescents or adults but language learning is something that children can do as young as possible, if they have the opportunity to do so, and it’s the best time to do so too.
It does raise a question though – if there is no fixed second language preference then why not choose one from a language family that’s very different to your child’s first language in order to maximise the range of phonemes and writing systems he/she’ll pick up (e.g. English and Chinese)? If a second language does improve EF then surely not all second languages are equal?
Woof. Well I speak Dog (with an English accent) and English (with a Dog accent)!