The high-pitched singsong of new moms. A toddler's parents' ability to translate his soft-lipped babbles. The keen looks of comprehension that predate a child's voiced answers. The shift in social dynamics in preschoolers from grabbing to negotiating as words come more easily than tussles. The elaborate stories, stage directions, and role-playing direction that underpin a game of make-believe, just a few years after first words appeared.
So much of early childhood is about language development. It's just another of the many ways that our little ones are tough. Imagine the headache you would have if you spent all day every day immersed in all this noise!
But that's exactly the magic of little kids. It's not noise to them (or if it is, it's noise they find inexplicably compelling, like the music they'll listen to as teenagers, much to our dismay). Kids can absorb so much language, and they are so skillful at mastering sound and divining meaning from context, that more than one language is easily within their reach. Researchers at Indiana University showed that even very young children (12-14 months old) understand the meaning of words just by hearing them repeatedly and in context. And amazingly, little kids seem to be universal learners when it comes to language. Their parents have an idea that certain languages are harder than others to learn, whether because of silent letters or irregular grammar or tonal changes that an ear must be retrained to ear. But children have none of these preconceptions, and their tongues and ears and windpipes (not to mention their brains) are endlessly adaptable during the key window of early language development opportunity. An NIH study outlined the universal decoding approach that children take to learning language (decoding sounds, building vocabulary, stringing together sentences), regardless of whether it's Dutch, Hebrew, Korean or English they are learning. In fact, children are so good at understanding sounds and language that little ones as little as 15 to 19 months old showed psychological researchers that they are hip to differences between dialects.
This confirms your deepest fear: nothing gets past your kiddo, already.
So, perhaps you should take advantage of it. Preschools around the country integrate bilingual curriculum into their approach, from as light as a few songs in a different language now and again to as full as immersion. Your kids might be able to zip from one to ten in a few languages, and they may be able to flutter through the alphabet or the do-re-mi music octave in sign language. What else can they do? Simple exposure during the years before their speech muscles "harden" can bring a French 'r' or 'u,' a Hebrew 'ch,' a trilled Italian 'r' into a child's repertoire, much to parents' puzzlement. Listen to Putomayo CDs and let your child mimic the sounds even without understanding. See how many different versions of "Happy Birthday" your family can master. Encourage your friends, teachers, caretakers who speak another language to use it when they talk to your child. And think about an immersion preschool. The early, all-comprehension, no-translation language learning years are a gift. Enjoy them.
It's on the minds of many parents of young children: how can we help our kids learn a second language? There are many reasons for parents to be asking this question right from the start. In our rapidly globalizing, increasingly interconnected wo... read more