The benefits and possible drawbacks of learning English in early childhood (from birth to age 12)
Why and when should my child start learning English as a second language? This is a question that occupies most parents with small children. Naturally, we all want the best for our children and making decisions about important things that can affect their entire life can be stressful. Learning foreign languages definitely affects children’s future prospects, so there’s no wonder it is one of the most important decisions parents need to make.
But when talking to teachers, experts and other parents, we often come across controversial information. Some says it is best if your child starts participating in foreign language sessions as a baby, others advise to wait till your child can read and write in their mother tongue. That is a six-year span at best, which we all know makes a big difference in the case of a child!
To help parents who are seeking the answer to this very complex matter, we have put together the most important benefits of learning English in early childhood. In hopes of helping you make an informed decision before enrolling your child in an English learning programme, we are also going to address the main concerns and doubts parents usually have.
To begin with, let’s see the five main reasons to why young children are better language learners than teenagers or adults
1) A child learns languages naturally
A child’s language skills develop rapidly during the first few years of life. Their brain is hard-wired to acquire the language they are exposed to in order to learn to speak. This makes children natural learners. They are self-motivated to pick up language to be able to communicate and they do it without conscious learning – something adolescents and adults are not able to do anymore. Because of this natural motivation and need, a child would actually never think that learning to speak is difficult.
It is true not only in case of their mother tongue. Young children are suited to learn a foreign language as their brain is wired to acquire language and learn to communicate. Exposing a child to English as a second language at this flexible stage of their lives optimises their foreign language learning potential.
2) A child has no fear of the language
Even though children have no concept of grammar rules, this should not be viewed as a disadvantage. They have the natural ability to work out the rules of the language themselves – just as they do it with their mother tongue. This is what we call language acquisition. Young children – when taught properly – have no fear of making grammar mistakes and when corrected gently, they are able to memorise the rules and build language accuracy by simply copying their teacher and work out the patterns themselves. Researches in early childhood development prove that this ease of learning a foreign language diminishes with age, which is many times an obstacle for elder children and adults, stopping them from building fluency.
3) A child does not translate in his/her head
Children who learn another language before age five use the same part of the brain to acquire that second language that they use to learn their mother tongue. Learning a foreign language similarly to how the first language is acquired enables children to speak English just as a native speaker would – without translation. Adults often struggle with thinking in their mother tongue and translate their thoughts to English or any other target language. This phenomenon stops them from building their fluency and it generally makes them tired when communicating in a foreign language. Children who start learning a foreign language do not struggle with translation. On the contrary, they are able to switch between languages with ease.
4) A child has time to learn
Innate abilities aside, there’s another factor that makes young children better language learners than adults: time. Even though when we think children are only playing, they are actually learning. They have each and every day devoted to learning; therefore their approach to the time spent with foreign language sessions is very different than of an adult’s.
5) A child can form deeper emotional connections to the language
Learning a language is a long process (experts say we actually never stop learning a language) and when it is started early, children can form a deeper connection to the foreign language they are learning, making them a self-motivated language learner for life. Acquiring a second language early in life prepares the brain to learn multiple other languages, opening a world of opportunities for later on.
To be more assured, let’s see what science has to say about children and language learning
The ability to learn
At age three, a child’s brain is twice as active as an adult’s. Children learn through experiencing the language. If they are exposed to a foreign language frequently enough, they are able to absorb it like a sponge absorbs water. Surprisingly enough, children are able to think logically and make connections between pieces of information quite early in their lives. This means we don’t need to wait for them to be able to understand grammar rules before introducing a foreign language to them.
Children are born with the ability to learn any language. Learning languages starts at birth or even before. But which language or languages the child will acquire depends on which one(s) they are exposed to.
Research suggests that from birth through age 10 is the best time to introduce foreign languages to a young child. Many experts believe that learning a foreign language before age 10 gives the best chance to a child to learn to speak that language on proficiency level.
Before 6 months old, infants can discriminate among sounds of any language on the world.
Between 6 and 12 months, the brain begins to specialize in discriminating sounds of the native language and loses the ability to discriminate sounds in nonnative languages (Kuhl, Tsao, & Liu, 2003).
12-month-old infants given additional experience with speech sounds from a nonnative language continue to be able to discriminate among sounds (Kuhl, Tsao, & Liu, 2003).
Research suggests that children who start learning English early, most often can speak it with near-native pronunciation.
Let’s address the three main concerns of parents and see if there’s really something to worry about
1) “My child is too young to learn a foreign language because he is still learning his mother tongue.”
Many parents think that children need to reach a certain age and mother tongue development to be able to start learning a foreign language. If we consider the fact that we never actually stop learning our mother tongue, it becomes obvious that with that logic we would never be ready to start learning foreign languages.
Before we begin attending school, our language develops through conversations with our family members, through communicating with our friends, reading or being read books to, just to mention a few. Once we start school, our language skills continue developing and deepening as we learn different subjects, read from various sources and carry out different school projects. We improve our vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing skills basically throughout our whole life when it comes to our mother tongue.
If we think about it, it is very similar to learning a foreign language. We start using words then short sentences just to be able to communicate. Then we start reading simple texts, later attempt to compose a simple text ourselves, while in the meantime we keep on improving our vocabulary and grammar.
Children can begin building up their foreign language skills effortlessly! Giving them this opportunity can only benefit them when their teaching is being done with care and expertise. Experience and multiple researches prove that introducing a foreign language in early childhood does not interfere with the first language development if exposure to both languages includes genuine need and quality activities.
2) “I’m afraid my child will confuse the languages.”
Because of their innate abilities, children can learn multiple languages at the same time without any negative effects. Let’s take the example of children who are raised in a multilingual environment – which is a much more common phenomenon than most people would think. There are many families where the parents speak different languages. Let’s imagine a family where the mother was born in Spain and the father is from Italy. If they provide enough exposure of both Spanish and Italian to their children at home, it is natural that the children will learn both languages. Now if this family lives, let’s say, in France and the children attend a French school, they are going to learn French as well.
Children can learn 2-3 languages at the same time with ease but only if they have enough quality exposure to each of these languages. If there’s not enough consistency and exposure, the children cannot become fluent and build their language skills.
Brain studies of bilingual children show that children can learn two languages at the same time and progress in both languages at the same rate if the quality and amount of exposure equals and they do not in any way lag behind children who are only learning one language (their mother tongue).
It is a common concern that being bilingual or learning minimum two languages at the same time causes confusion for children. This concern partly originates from the fact that children insert words from one language into the other. But this is not due to being confused. This phenomenon occurs because bilingual children can simply borrow a word from the other language if they cannot quickly retrieve the appropriate word. Researchers have shown that this “code switching” is part of a bilingual child’s normal language development and is not caused by confusing the languages.
3) “Young children cannot learn much in a foreign language.”
It is essential to understand that there is a huge difference between conversational fluency and building the academic abilities when it comes to languages. Just as in their native language, children can become fluent in conversational English or any other foreign language at a young age. But this level will not exceed their normal abilities. It goes without saying that a child will be able to talk about topics and carry out language exercises in a foreign language only to the natural limit of his/her mother tongue language abilities and his/her age.
To obtain academic ability – writing essays, using sophisticated vocabulary and phrases - in any language, even in the mother tongue, requires additional years of study and age.
When we talk about teaching English as a second language to young learners, we think about building their language skills the same way their mother tongue develops. Through songs, rhymes, books and games we can build children’s vocabulary and we can provide them with enough exposure to the target language to be able to pick up grammar structures and pronunciation naturally. These activities result in communication fluency and preparation for building academic skills. The progress of foreign language learning should follow the child’s development by age and schooling. Of course, learning the foreign language should not be stopped just because the child can converse already. There’s further and important learning left to do: building the academic skills as the child ages and grows up.
Let’s see a summary of our main findings to help you make your decision whether to enroll your child in an English programme
Learning English as a second language in early childhood is a lifelong experience. It does not only give the gift and advantage of speaking a world language fluently but it also prepares children for being life-long language learners.
As we could see from our findings, when teaching is done properly and with expertise, following the child’s natural abilities and development, there are no dangers of introducing English as a second language to young learners.
It is obvious that the more years are committed to learning a language and the more use of it is made, the greater the proficiency that will be achieved.
Checklist for choosing the right language learning programme for your child
The language teaching programme is led by professionals
The English sessions have clear outlines and development plans
The English lessons match the child’s abilities
The English lessons follow the child’s natural language development
There’s enough quality exposure to the language
The lessons generate a natural need for the child to use and communicate in English
The sessions consider that every child is unique, so the teaching style and method is aligned with your child’s abilities and nature
Your child shall have fun while learning
You can schedule a discussion with the teacher or course leader anytime you feel the need to be updated about your child’s English development
Learning English in early childhood is an adventure with countless benefits. If you feel uncertain which and what type of English language programme would suit your child best, book a free consultation with us right away. Our educational experts will help you make the best choice and answer any questions you might have about learning English in early childhood.
Happy Learning from KnowledgePond’s team!