"You can never understand one language until you understand at least two." ~ Geoffrey Willams
Most parents would agree when I say no child’s too young to learn a foreign language. Others might argue learning foreign languages can cause linguistic confusion, lesser reverence for mother tongue and a missing sense of belonging.
*Takes a Deep Breath*
Learning new languages early on in childhood is proven to confer exponential benefits (besides bragging rights) and the you are, the easier it is to learn a second or a third language. You get an all-access pass to the lifetime benefits of cross-cultural friendships, broader career opportunities, exciting travel adventures and deeper insights into myriad cultures. I mean, just imagine - if you learn to speak Mandarin you can speak to more than a billion people worldwide, if you learn Hindi you can speak to another 650 million people and if you learn Spanish you can speak to approximately another 420 million.
Let’s look at some advantages of learning languages early in childhood:
1. Well Fed Brains:
Learning new languages improves memory, concentration and the ability to multitask. What’s more? Children who are bilingual or multilingual show greater critical thinking and problem solving skills - which are two of the most coveted skills in the 21st century! In fact, kids proficient in other languages also show signs of enhanced creativity and mental flexibility.
2. Boosted Academic Performance:
No wonder the first benchers in school always knew at least one foreign language. The cognitive benefits of learning a language has a direct impact on academics. Kids trained in other languages show improved Reading, Writing and Maths skills. They generally score higher on standardized tests like SAT, GRE and GMAT too.
3. Improved understanding of cultures:
Kids who are exposed early to multiple languages are warmer to foreign cultures. The experience of learning a language introduces them to the world in ways they might otherwise have not experienced. It nurtures curiosity, cultural sensitivity, empathy and tolerance
4. Health benefits:
Speaking multiple languages slows down the onset of dementia. When you speak more than one language, your brain has to find completely new ways to process information. This is almost like a workout for the brain that helps protect its functionality.
5. Economic Advantages:
Research has proven that there is a strong correlation between multilingualism and earning potential. The pool of jobs is wider when you speak more languages. There are opportunities to find positions in countries other than your own and employers highly value the skill set. In the US, there is approximately a 2% salary premium for college graduates who speak a second language versus those who don’t. This salary boost varies by language. One of the highest premiums is for those who can speak German - approximately 3.8%! With compounding, this could turn into over $100,000 over the course of one’s career. Not bad at all!
6. Greater grasp of one’s first language:
As paradoxical as it may sound, learning foreign languages provides kids with a better grasp of their first language. We use our first language with little thought to grammatical frameworks and nuances. But by being able to compare two languages, we learn the intricacies of our first language. Besides, we use what they learn in one language to reinforce concepts and terms they’ve learned in the other.
7. “Ear” for Music:
Speakers of tonal languages like Mandarin and Cantonese are better at identifying musical pitches than speakers of non-tonal languages like English and French. This gives them “Ear” for music, i.e., an enhanced sense of hearing, repeating and understanding sounds. Now you know why some of the finest classical musicians are Asian!
But obviously, all the benefits of learning foreign languages aside, it’s also important you don’t enroll your child into multiple foreign language courses simultaneously or back to back. Consider giving kids enough time to grasp and fully understand a language before introducing newer ones. And, don’t forget asking them about the language they’d like to learn - you’ll be surprised to see how the little one has an opinion already.