Second language learning: benefits for children

We know that learning a second language has many benefits such enhancing a person’s career prospects and often comes in handy when going on holiday. However, there are deeper reasons and even more meaningful benefits for offering your child the chance to learn a second language. 

Contrary to popular belief, a second language does not confuse children but it can actually boost children’s abilities in their native language and of course it will boost their ability to learn more languages in the future.

It is possible that the idea that a second language tends to confuse children is due to the fact that most bilingual children, usually, take slightly longer to speak when they are toddlers.

My children for example have been raised in a bilingual environment. I spoke my mother tongue, which is Italian and my husband his, which is English. And it is true if I had compared my children’s language in the first stages I might have been slightly worried. The single language toddlers were doing better, they had more vocabulary and phrases. However, as a teacher of Italian as a second language, I understood that my children were decoding two languages at the same time and they simply needed more time to do so. When they went to school, there were no differences in term of language development and they are in fact doing very well. The first is in year two and the second in year one. They have also been attending a second foreign language class and they seem to take it in their stride adjusting easily into it. They recognise the similarities with their current languages and they are learning it without questioning it in a natural way.

Recent studies, in fact, go even further, suggesting that learning a second language generally enhance the children school performance. It is proven that children with a second language are more creative, develop more critical thinking, flexibility of the mind and have better memory.

But there is more. We live in a diverse and complex society and to have an understanding of other cultures and languages is more and more important in the modern world. Learning a second language gives people the ability to access and understand other cultures, to understand why people behave differently and believe in different things. As a result, children acquire respect for other cultures, for people and their ways of thinking. This develops their empathy for others, their curiosity and interest for the different and as a consequence they are more open to new ideas as well.

The benefits are great but not without cost. You will often hear people saying that children are like sponges. In a way this is true. It has been proven that children’s brains are designed to absorb information and particularly languages. Also, unlike teenagers and adults, they have a natural ability to recognise and reproduce new sounds, which is why small children can speak without a first language accent. However, we need to recognise that learning is still an effort for children and that they need to be well supported in their endeavour. To learn a language takes time and it is a commitment for both children and parents as well.

Our experience as a bilingual family, for example, has not been easy. I had been living in London for almost twenty years when I had my first child. At home, we always spoke in English and when I had my first child, I made the commitment to speak Italian to him. So I was switching continuously between the two languages when my husband was at home and even if I found it tiring I continued to do it as I knew of the benefits. However, after my second child was born, I found myself having less energy. When my first born started nursery, he started to speak more and more English and started to reply to me in English as well. The children would find it easier to speak English as this is what they hear all day at nursery and school. Therefore, it is useful to know that even in a bilingual family the learning is not straightforward, it doesn’t happen without effort. Learning takes energy, commitment and work from both the parents and the children.

Having said that, of course the benefits are far reaching and will enhance a child’s ability in many different ways boosting their confidence and self-esteem in the process. Second language will give children even better chances of developing into well-rounded individuals and the earlier they start the better it is.

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