Learning languages as a child, Belatz, 2015, Ilustración Digital

Learning languages as a child

September 1, 2015  |  Education

Children who speak two languages solve problems more easily.

Children are like sponges. From the moment they are born they start learning to communicate, telling us when it’s time to eat, to sleep, and when they want attention… and they learn to much more quickly than we tend to imagine.

We all know children of parents who are from different countries and that talk to their offspring in their respective languages. In no time at all, as though by magic, they are able to understand them and converse using the correct vocabulary and syntax. Which is why, as parents, even if we speak the same language, we should take advantage of their abilities and expose them to other languages, whether at school, extra-scholastic activities, at camps, on television, or through the apps they download. It all adds up.

The experts say that speaking other languages than their own helps children to train mentally, to put their memory to work. Most of the neuronal connections develop over the first four years of life, so this is the perfect stage to stimulate language learning the natural way, some that children will keep with them throughout their lives. The process takes place in four phases: the first consists of listening, then learning, then speaking, and finally, in the most advanced phases, reading and writing. The objective is to reproduce learning the mother tongue with another language.

What do the experts say? A team from Strathclyde University in the United Kingdom has shown that children who speak two languages solve problems more easily. Specialists within the Department of Education in the United Kingdom have highlighted in a report entitled ‘Investigating the role of language in children’s early educational outcomes’ that there is a clear link between children’s first experiences and their preparation for school, and learning a language is an important part of this. Similarly, a recent article in the journal Neurology points out that speaking more than one language can help delay the onset of illnesses like Alzheimer’s. It seems that working the brain in different languages can keep it in good shape for longer into our lives.

With this in mind, language-learning centers such as the British Council or the Institute Français have special programs for very young children that get them to play in a foreign language, learn the first sounds and words through songs, poems, and by drawing; without realizing it, they are soon talking. English is many people’s first choice. It is the lingua franca of the business and technology worlds, with some 400 million native speakers and a further billion who use it as a second language. We live in times when we have to speak at least one other language, soon, we will be talking about two or more. In short, our globalized world is a tower of Babel, and we have to take advantage of time from our infancy.

A 2012 report by the European Commission, children in the EU are learning foreign languages from ever-younger ages. The majority of countries and regions have lowered the age school children begin learning languages over the last 15 years, and some are even starting in nursery: the German-speaking community of Belgium, for example start their children learning languages from age three. English is far and away the language taught in most European schools, followed by French, Spanish, German, and Russian.

The report also highlighted that a growing number of school students learn two languages for at least a year. On average, in 2010, 60.8 percent of students in the first cycle of secondary education were learning two or more languages, a 14 percent increase on five years earlier. During the same period, the proportion of primary education age children not studying any foreign language fell from 32.5 percent to 21.8 percent. It also noted that few countries require language teachers to spend time studying abroad, a process that should be considered essential as part of teacher training.