Learning a Second Language

Eliza Clark
March 7, 2012

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 world, a second language is valuable skill. It brings the pleasure of increased connection to people from other parts of the world. A second language has also been shown to enhance a child's cognitive abilities and verbal skills in multiple ways beyond simply acquiring a new vocabulary and grammar. Finally, languages are much easier to learn at an early age rather than as an adult. The brain of a baby or young child is primed for language acquisition, and there is every reason to take advantage of this facility while it lasts.

We all know children who are perfect examples of this. Usually, they are from families where each parent consistently speaks a different language to the child. These kids may also spend time with relatives who speak the second language, and reinforce their learning with visits to the country of origin. This process certainly requires commitment on the part of the parents, but it is relatively straightforward and works well with most children.

For those of us who are not native speakers or fluent in another language, it is a more challenging road but nonetheless worthwhile. What can we give our small kids a head start in learning a second language? Effective ideas include:

Hiring a caregiver who will speak to your child in her native tongue. Emphasize that you want the sitter to speak in Spanish, say, exclusively, and seek out Spanish books and games for them to enjoy together.

Stocking up on music and DVDs in the language in question. The BBC Muzzy series and Little Pim are highly regarded learning tools. 

Seeking out a preschool and later an elementary school that offers a language class or immersion program.

Considering additional classes and/or tutoring if you are so inclined.

Reading The Bilingual Edge: Why, When and How to Teach a Second Language by Kendall King and Alison Mackey. Of all the manuals on the topic, this one is unique for its clear explanations of cutting-edge research combined with a down-to-earth approach to parenting. It is written by two moms who also happen to be Georgetown linguistics professors: they know their stuff.

As a language teacher I know once commented, learning a language is a long-term commitment. Start the children as early as possible and continue as consistently as possible. Even though you may not see or hear any great results right away, there will be a pay-off later on, and you can be sure that your kids will at some point be glad to be able to communicate in more than one tongue. 

From the Parents

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