The Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language at a Young Age

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Why my daughter learnt Chinese at 3 years

“See, this is Rén 人 , mama, and it means people in Chinese,” said my toddler. I was more than happy that at 3 years old, my daughter was learning Chinese, and doing a good job at it.  The rest of our family was quite apprehensive about such a young child learning three languages, English, Malay and Chinese, in our country of residence, Brunei. However, the decision to send her to a school that taught three languages from preschool, I believe, was one of the best decisions we have taken. Today, when she is 11 years old, she can converse, sing songs, and even recite a speech in basic Mandarin. This, I believe, would not have been the case if she had learnt Chinese at an older age. The benefits of learning a second language at a young age are numerous, as I can cite from my own daughter’s case.

  1. Young children have a unique advantage in learning languages, an advantage that dissipates with age.

Researchers Hakuta, Bialystock and Wiley, who studied second language acquisition, concluded that second-language proficiency declines with initial age of exposure and that the degree of success in second language acquisition steadily declines across the lifespan. This is especially true of attaining a native-like pronunciation.

If my daughter can speak Mandarin like a native speaker, the main reason is that she has learnt it at preschool, the time when she started speaking in any language. During childhood the brain undergoes tremendous growth. The amount of grey and white matter and the number of synapses in the brain increase significantly in childhood. For example, the number and differentiation of synapses reaches a peak between ages 2 and 4, and then decreases and reaches a steady state between the ages of 10 and 15.

  1. Foreign Language Study increases cognitive abilities: intellectual and academic

My daughter, when she speaks, often uses Chinese and Malay words, and sometimes her mother tongue Malayalam, interspersed with English. Many parents are in fact worried when their children use multiple languages to communicate. However, this phenomenon, simply known as ‘code switching’ is natural, and is indicative of a bilingual or trilingual fluency. Children who engage in ‘code switching’ often do very well in school. This itself is indicative of the second most important benefit in learning a foreign language at a very young age, namely, that it improves cognitive abilities, and leads to higher achievement in test scores in reading and math. According to Stewart (2005), they are more creative and better problem solvers than those children who do not study a second language.

  1. Foreign language study improves verbal skills in English

I believe my daughter is a better user of English, because she is learning foreign languages. Why is this so? Research has found that children who study a foreign language develop new perspectives and in-depth understanding about the vocabulary and structure of their first language. As many parents like me and educators have observed, learning a foreign language buttresses the vocabulary and concepts already known in the first language.

  1. Knowledge of foreign languages provides students access to more opportunities in higher education and better employment opportunities.

In today’s world of high-stakes tests and ever-increasing competition for college admissions, knowledge of a second and even a third language is truly an asset.  According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, admission to almost all U.S. colleges and universities require some foreign language study.  The more number of years a student has studied foreign language, the more competitive his/her application will be. University College London has made a GCSE in a modern foreign language compulsory for admission. Similarly, coveted American schools such as Yale, Princeton, University of California Berkeley, and Stanford recommend four years of foreign language study for admission.

In terms of employment opportunities, applicants with knowledge of a foreign language stand a much better chance than those who do not. Business Experts at the Center for Economic Development (CED) in the U.S. says, “Knowledge of foreign languages and cultures is an economic necessity.”

Why learn Chinese?

But why Chinese? My friends ask. Why not French, or Spanish?

Chinese is the language of the most populous country in the world. More than 1 billion people speak the Chinese language. Being able to learn Chinese is not only fun, but it’s also becoming an essential skill for business people and world travellers alike.

More importantly, learning Chinese works both sides of your brain. Chinese is a tonal language, meaning that the word definitions can change based on intonation. Like music, Mandarin needs speakers to use both the right and left sides of their brains. This is brilliant exercise for your mind! Mandarin will challenge you in a way that Spanish will not. It does not mean it is impossible, though.

How do you learn Chinese?

My daughter has been especially lucky that Chinese is taught at their school by native Chinese speakers, but those who do not have this advantage have other ways to get to learn the language.

There are a lot of online resources as well as tutors, books, and audio translation CD’s available. One of the most effective websites is eChineseLearning (…). It has live language lessons featuring private tutors from China, so you can be sure about the authenticity. They even show you how to learn Chinese in five minutes or less during a free trial lesson. There are also textbooks available, one of which frequently cited is Integrated Chinese: Simplified Characters Textbook, Level 1, Part 1. Another useful book is Tuttle’s book for beginners.

What can parents do to help their children learn a second language such as Chinese?

Parents can give a lot of encouragement and motivation. We can also get books in the target language for the kids to read.

I talk to my daughter every other day about her progress in Chinese, and sometimes she answers me in Chinese (which to me is Greek and Latin!), and it really delights me!


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