The earlier the better for learning languages

    • Language learning is dependent upon the processing of sounds.Every human language contains about 40 different phonemes (language sounds). At birth, infant brains contain the unique capacity to recognize every phoneme from every language. Before they have even left the womb, babies’ brains begin to process and categorize the sounds of their parent’s voice.


      Studies done on infants have shown that they are born not only able to recognize the difference between their mother’s language and another language, but with the ability to differentiate between other languages as well.


      However, between 6 and 12 months of age, infants who live in monolingual households begin to specialize in the phonemes of their native language. By their first birthdays, babies begin to lose the ability to hear the differences between foreign phonemes.


      The optimal window for language acquisition appears to be from birth to around age 5, when the majority of neural connections in the brain are still “plastic.” During this time, there is hypothetically no limit to the number of languages a child can acquire (although for practical purposes, it has been suggested that more than four is probably an unrealistic expectation for a toddler).


      If language acquisition starts early enough, children can, in effect, have more than one “first” language. That increases the probability they will be able to speak fluently and without an accent in multiple tongues. Not only can very young children excel in multiple languages at once, but they excel at code-switching, a phrase which refers to the mixing of languages and speech patterns in conversation. After age 7, code-switching becomes more difficult, as does speaking in a non-native language sans accent.


      Language has the power to shape the worldview and identity of its users. Children who are proficient in more than one language have been shown to be adept at navigating a diverse range of social and cultural settings. In addition, being multilingual has many cognitive benefits; studies have shown that adolescent polyglots have longer attention spans, are better at multitasking, and can reason abstractly with more ease than their monolingual peers. As they grow older, being multilingual helps children excel in school, opens an opportunity for foreign travel, and makes them valuable employees for a vast range of careers.


      In an increasingly global and multicultural world, knowing multiple languages is an invaluable skill. The moral of the story: If you can, start introducing your child to languages as soon as possible. If you can, speak multiple languages at home or send them to an immersive day care. Trust me, they will thank you for it later.


      Leah Folpe is a senior at Mayo High School. To respond to an opinion column, send an email to



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  • What hope do monolingual parents have in raising bilingual children?

    • What hope do monolingual parents have in raising bilingual children?


      A series of videos promoting the use of mother tongues has recently been released by the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism.

      These videos are intended to promote the use of mother tongues, stressing its importance in bridging connections with others and retaining a strong national identity.

      The need for these videos may speak to some of the ambivalence and challenges families often face in raising bilingual children. Particularly in families where parents do not speak the mother tongue, they may feel overwhelmed and uncertain when it comes to figuring out how to raise a bilingual child.


      Can parents who don’t speak their mother tongue raise children who do?

      And can they do so without resorting to expensive tuition classes?

      Thankfully, research tells us that parents who do not speak two languages can raise bilingual children who become fully proficient in both languages.


      However, unlike bilingual families, these parents will be more dependent on outside sources, such as childcare facilities, community resources, schools or tutors, to provide second language exposure and instruction.


      For monolingual families, well-designed and effectively implemented bilingual education programmes can provide an excellent and sustainable route to bilingualism.

      Bilingual education programmes that maintain best practices in second language instruction should be sufficient to build up mother tongue proficiency without the need for supplementary tuition.

      But what distinguishes good bilingual education?

      The sheer amount of time that children hear a mother tongue predicts their eventual success. Children with longer exposure to the mother tongue go onto greater proficiency.

      However, bilingual education is not just about clocking hours – it is also about how this time is being spent. In learning a mother tongue, it is good for children to have exposure and interaction with a variety of mother tongue speakers and for these interactions to be with fully proficient native speakers. Such speakers can provide the best language model for young learners.

      So, the more the better, both in terms of time spent and the number of speakers encountered.

      The success of mother tongue education relies on interaction with live partners. While many parents may be tempted to let the television playing cartoons or sitcoms in the mother tongue babysit children in the hope that kids will pick up the language with the passage of time, research shows children learn better from live interaction and conversation than passive media consumption.

      The mode of instruction also matters, although some children draw more from spontaneous social opportunities whereas others draw more from more structured learning.

      The reality is some children gravitate towards structured learning where they learn rules and word meanings, and armed with this knowledge, feel comfortable to engage in spontaneous conversation. Others much prefer spontaneous conversation and use these conversations to draw out rules and word meanings.

      But crucial to both is a chance to interact and converse with a partner.

      While mother tongue tuition can be helpful, a good bilingual education should suffice to build up native mother tongue proficiency.

      Parents can also resort to social opportunities, such as interest groups via Meetup, or immerse themselves in cultural events at Community Centres to seek out opportunities for their children to use the mother tongue.

      Parents can also actively support peer friendships and play opportunities with native speakers of a mother tongue. Children are typically less deterred by a language barrier with those they meet than adults and they are often very willing to enjoy play with another child with shared interests, even if they speak a different language.

      Community and peer engagement will have to be a more active effort for monolingual families, but it is a worthy investment in their child’s bilingual journey.


      Research shows us that motivation for second language learning in children is more important than language learning ability in reaching bilingual proficiency. A child who is highly motivated to learn their mother tongue will typically fare much better than one who is not.

      As parents often recognise, creating and sustaining motivation for the mother tongue can present one of the biggest challenges to teaching children their mother tongue.

      Many children, even toddlers, simply refuse to talk in a mother tongue choosing to speak English, even though they understand their mother tongue. This is a common scenario that reflects in the child both a language preference and a selective appreciation for the usefulness of one language over the other.

      But this barrier must be overcome so that kids don’t stay passive bilinguals (children who understand two languages but only speak in one) but make progress to become active bilinguals.

      The reality is that children cannot be pressured to interact in a mother tongue, nor can they be easily convinced of the logic of why learning an additional language is important.

      Children are motivated to learn a language when they believe that the language is useful to them in their eyes. For example, many parents believe that learning Chinese is a strategic choice that will give their children opportunities in their future careers, yet this is not a line of reasoning that would readily appeal to a 5-year-old.

      For this reason, good bilingual education programmes often have clever, creative ways to engage children in the host culture of a second language to enliven the experience of learning. For example, learning about interesting cultural practices or popular culture in the mother tongue can fuel a curiosity for the language in children.

      While this is not directly teaching vocabulary or grammar, it is a crucial step towards building motivation than can bolster an uptake of vocabulary and grammar.

      But if one language is actively used in a child’s life to converse in school, maintain friendships and family bonds, and access the ever-appealing world of entertainment while the other language is confined to textbooks and homework exercises, then both languages will start to mean different things.

      The child may naturally gravitate towards the language that they actively use at the cost of the second language, limiting a child from realising their bilingual potential.

      But a child who views their knowledge of a second language as a means towards forging important social bonds, pursuing their own hobbies or interests, or making valued cultural connections in their life will be more likely to persevere in the hard work of learning another language more than a child who sees a second language as just another examinable subject.


      Finally, as with all aspects of learning, children learn within the bounds of their own “ecosystem”. A child raised in a family environment where bilingualism is valued and prioritised by the parents – even if they are not providing bilingual input at home – is more likely to become bilingual than one whose family holds an indifferent view towards bilingualism.

      Many monolingual parents often approach bilingualism in a direction that is less than ideal. Specifically, we teach word by word. In other words, we hope that children will learn words in a Mother tongue to be able to access the “world” of the Mother tongue. But it can be equally important for children to be drawn to the “world” of the mother tongue in a way that makes them want to learn the words.

      Children inherit their parents’ attitudes in many respects, and bilingualism is no exception.

      For monolingual and bilingual families alike, developing a sustainable and consistent family language policy where each member of the family agrees upon and actively supports bilingual acquisition can greatly benefit a child.

      This can mean actively seeking to create opportunities for children to engage in their mother tongue by attending community events or by forging partnerships with peers and neighbours to encourage mother tongue use.

      Family language policies vary greatly depending on the languages spoken by each member of the family and on what works best for an individual child. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for all children.

      What is important is that children receive similar amounts of high-quality exposure and interaction opportunities for both languages and that children see the relevance and appeal of both languages in their lives.

      Leher Singh is director for the National University of Singapore’s Infant and Child Language Centre and Associate Professor of Psychology.

      Source: CNA/sl

      LCF can help bilingual children

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  • A new study has identified the languages children should learn now in order to set them up for success in adulthood

    • A new study has identified the languages children should learn now in order to set them up for success in adulthood

      The results revealed that French, German and Mandarin are the top three languages that will set children up for life so they can take advantage of maximum opportunities as adults. 

      Over 2,000 UK parents with children under 18-years-old were surveyed in the study, which was carried out by the Centre of Economics and Business Research and Opinium in partnership with Heathrow airport. 

      As well as identifying the top three languages that children should learn to set them up for success as adults, the results also revealed that kids across the country are missing out on many opportunities that learning languages presents to them.

      According to the research, 45% of parents currently have children who can’t speak a second language to a basic level where they can have a simple conversation, such as introducing themselves, ordering food, asking for directions or what time it is.

      On the contrary 85% of those parents surveyed believe language skills are very important for children and 27% agree that it will improve their children’s future career opportunities and employability.

      It is believed that language skills in general will contribute up to £500 billion to the economy by 2027, so the earlier children start learning a second language, the better.

      Antonella Sorace, the founder of Bilingualism Matters and Professor of Developmental Linguistics at Edinburgh University commented on the study saying, ‘This research demonstrates how important language learning is to the UK economy, and shows that many more doors are opened to people who learn a second language as children. 

      ‘We believe that language learning is hugely beneficial for children’s development and it’s a real investment for the future: children who are exposed to different languages become more aware of different cultures, other people and other points of view.


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  • Children should start learning languages at age three

    • Children should start learning languages at age three’

      Our European neighbours shame us by their ability to converse in English. The Government would like that to be a thing of the past. So would Catherine Ford

      Nurseries caught coasting face closure as Ofsted forced to toughen up inspection rules

      The younger the learner, the better they are at mimicking new sounds Photo: Getty Images

      There are incredible psychological benefits of learning another language. These benefits extend way beyond being able to order a cup of tea abroad.

      Longitudinal studies by Harvard University confirm that learning additional languages increases critical thinking skills, creativity and flexibility of the mind in young children.

      Pupils who learn a foreign language outscore their non-foreign language learning peers in verbal and maths standardised tests, indicating that learning additional language is a cognitive activity not just a linguistic one.

      The brain, like any muscle, functions better with exercise. Learning a language involves memorising rules and vocabulary, which helps strengthen that mental muscle.

      When children join the preschool class of Moreton First at three years of age, they are exposed to four languages.

      The rubrics of spoken English are practised and enhanced through songs, stories and nursery rhymes, and modelled and explored as the children enter their make believe world of role play.

      French lessons are introduced and, without even realising they are learning a second language, the children follow the story book adventures of favourites such as ‘Bob le bricoleur’ and the ‘La Chenille qui a très faim’. Using the mediums of music and drama, the children can be heard spontaneously singing along to French songs.

      ‘Mr China’, nicknamed by the children, arrives in our pre-prep class with props and games and Mandarin Chinese begins. Ni hao! At the age of three and four, our youngest pupils engage in game-like activities and within a short time become familiar with the language that now dominates the international business world.

      The preschool home corner is dotted with Spanish and English labels. The children have the opportunity to play there accompanied by a fluent Spanish teacher. As the children create imaginary games she models Spanish, encouraging the children to copy her. It is fun and learning is incidental.

      However, further exciting research on the benefits of this early learning has come from Dr. Pascual-Leone, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

      His study provides an important first step in understanding the impact of learning a second language and the ageing brain. This research paves the way for future causal studies of bilingualism and cognitive decline prevention.

      But why should learning another language be started at such a young age?

      Simply, the younger the learner, the better they are at mimicking new sounds and adopting pronunciation. The brain is open to new sounds and patterns in preadolescence.

      At this age, young children have time to learn through play-like activities. Language lessons can be informal and children’s minds are not yet cluttered with facts to be stored and tested. Before children become self- conscious they can try out their newly acquired languages without fear of embarrassment.

      Children who grow up learning about languages develop empathy for others and a curiosity for different cultures and ideas; prepared to take their place in a global society. Furthermore, in later years, career opportunities increase for those with additional languages to offer.

      As the academic year gets under way and most schools gear up to accommodate the Government’s directive for Autumn 2014 – that every seven year old child should have lessons in a foreign language – I ask: why wait until seven?

      Catherine Ford, head teacher of Moreton First Prep School

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    • On a path to becoming bilingual

      Designed especially for preschoolers, our play-based, immersion style sessions start children on an exciting journey to becoming bilingual. Children participate in small groups and participate in weekly sessions in the desired target language. These preschooler language lessons are delivered through fun activities and many already popular preschooler games – they’re just in another language! 


      Did you know?

      1.     If you run a survey with the parents, the survey results will reinforce that the language program offering at a centre is one of the key reason for selecting a centre.

      2.     History has told us the days we run the language program the centres are typically full.


      Behind the fun appearance of the LCF Fun Languages, teaching methodology lies a carefully structured program specifically designed for the preschoolers to learn a second language quickly and naturally. Each week new words and phrases are added and consolidated over the term. Our teachers use beautiful resources and the lively sessions engage the children and room teachers in each activity.



      Our programs are the perfect complement to the government’s Early Learning Language Australia (ELLA) objectives and their current program to provide childcare centres with language ‘apps’ for kinder programs. At LCF Fun Languages, we understand that teaching via ‘apps’ alone is not enough to enable children to embark upon a bilingual journey – so our play-based, active and fun programs complement the online learning opportunities and give children the opportunity to practice amongst themselves and learn to use their new language in conversation.


      Ask for FREE 30 mins demo at your childcare centre today.

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