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nayeight's avatar

When and how should you teach a small child a foreign language?

Asked by nayeight (3347points) January 25th, 2010

I was reading sweetteaindahouse’s question about learning foreign languages in school and someone mentioned that we should start learning them in kindergarten. I like the idea of teaching my (wayyy in the future) children a language while they are young but what is the right age to start? Also, how should you teach them? I would think you would have to learn it or be in the process of learning it too, right? How would teaching them to read and write work at such a young age when they are still learning English and other kindergarten-y things?

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16 Answers

JLeslie's avatar

Start right away, the sooner the better. If your school system has it in kindergarten that is great. There are fun workbooks at the bookstore you can use at home if you want.

nayeight's avatar

My best friend is having a baby in June (I’m the “godmother”) so I might convince her to teach her daughter a language in a couple years. I’m hoping that will give me a better understanding of what and what not to do when I have little munchkins of my own!

cookieman's avatar

In my experience, immersion is the way to go.

My MIL is from Italy and speaks very broken English. She cares for my daughter after school so spends a lit of time with her. Instead of “teaching” her poor English, we asked her to speak only Italian to her.

My wife also speaks a lot of Spanish to her.

I’m planning to take a Mandarin class with her. She likes the idea of us doing it together.

None of this has dettered her from learning English. She’s in the top of her first grade class in language and math.

I’m no expert, but I just think at very young ages, they are capable of absorbing multiple things at once without confusion or doubt. They key is to present it to them as “completely normal” and “fun”.

PS: We also had these great flash cards when she was too young for school that had words in English and Spanish and a corosponding picture.

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

As early as possible. I grew up in a trilingual household and absorbed all three like a sponge. The only problem was that later in school I had to rid myself of Prussian and Alsatian accents. Children can pick up new languages much easier than adults can. It’s a great benefit to them.

Dr_Dredd's avatar

Definitely the younger you start, the better. One of my friends is a neuropsychologist, and she told me that the brain loses plasticity starting at about age two. Much older than 7 or 8, and the ability to learn a new language is limited. (Not impossible, just much harder.)

Snarp's avatar

The human brain has its greatest capacity for learning language at a very young age (basically, when it is usually learning language). Children learn multiple languages best when they are exposed to them more or less from birth, but definitely beginning as a toddler. Some children who are learning two languages this young will have a delay in actually speaking in general, but it will not affect their long term development and they will likely end up ahead in terms of language development.

We are also born with an innate ability to make and understand many different kinds of sounds, but the brain gives them up early on, making it difficult for English speakers to pronounce certain sounds in Mandarin or in Zulu for example (and vice versa).

Of course, teaching a child two languages from birth isn’t always easy or possible, and that’s no big deal, but our schools should be teaching them a second language from kindergarten. I hope to get my child into a school that has a continuous German immersion program alongside the rest of the classes starting in kindergarten. All schools in the U.S. should at least provide Spanish from kindergarten, maybe French and Mandarin too.

Sonnerr's avatar

3 is the perfect time. 2–3 years old kids are sponges. After I presume them to be more distracted by other things. Actually any age is a good time to teach your children.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

My oldest speaks Russian mostly but is learning English right now very quickly (he’s 3) and my youngest will probably speak both from the beginning.

marinelife's avatar

When they learn to talk.

casheroo's avatar

A lot of children’s shows integrate Mandarin and Spanish. My son picks up on it, and I’ve had to learn some Spanish so I can help the process along (I took French and Russian, so I’m not that great at Spanish…my husband can speak more Spanish than I can.)
We do random things to expose our son to it, like telling him the colors in both English and Spanish, counting in Spanish as well as English. I can only do so much, and will be asking my sister in law (who studies languages) to give lessons to my son. He’s 2.5 years old.

wilma's avatar

My grandmother came to the US from Hungary with her parents when she was a baby.
Her parents learned English and became citizens and she was naturalized. they spoke mostly Hungarian in her home and she learned English from playing with the neighbor kids.
When she went to school, she learned to read and write in English but never in Hungarian. (she said that her mother tried to teach her to read and write Hungarian, but she didn’t want to take the time to learn it ) She could speak both English and Hungarian fluently, but could only read and write in English.
Funny thing, late in her life, I tried to learn Hungarian, ( I wasn’t very successful ) and did learn the pronunciation of the letters and could often read the words OK, but didn’t know what they meant. She would get a letter from “the old country” I would read it to her, not knowing the meaning of the words. She would translate my Hungarian words into English for me.

janbb's avatar

I have had several discussions about this recently. My nephew and his wife have taught their sons Hebrew and English from birth by using each in the house. Supposedly in a bilingual household, one parent should only talk one language to the children and the other, the other. I don’t think they were quite that disciplined but the kids have learned a lot of Hebrew. My grandson is now at a creche in Paris, the son of two Americans, one fluent in French and one learning it. He is 8 months old and obviously exposed to French all day now. Unfortunately, he will probably be leaving France by the time he is 12 or 14 months old. A scientist colleague told me that new research shows children who have multiple language exposure when young use different parts of the brain when learning new languages as adults than other adults and thus language acquisition comes easier to them. Conclusion? The earlier the better, but I agree that natural language immersion is the best way to go.

Dr_Dredd's avatar

@janbb My neuropsychologist friend pretty much said the same thing. After a certain age, the brain develops a “primary” language area and an “other.” It’s hard to fit more than one language into that “other,” so it’s difficult to learn multiple languages. Personally, every time I try to teach myself Spanish, I end up thinking and speaking in French.

JLeslie's avatar

@janbb I think the best way to get a fully bilingual child in America is to speak only the second language in the house (so this is actually the child’s first language) and they learn English on the outside with friends and in school.

susanc's avatar

If you can, the best thing would be to go live in a country with another language for the first 3 or 4 years of the child’s life, and work hard to learn the language yourself. Once it’s in there, it can be accessed forever.

JLeslie's avatar

@susanc Not true. Kids completely lose languages if it is not reinforced. I know people who have adopted children or moved to the United States themselves at ages 4, 8, even 12, and almost completely lose their first language if no one is speaking it around them. Or, maybe you meant that the parents would continue to speak the language at home.

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