Note: We will add a research section on learning second languages in the future. For now, please read these tips on which language(s) to select, when to start, and how to teach second languages.
Tips for Teaching Your Child a Second Language
1) Start as soon as possible.
Babies have a “window of opportunity” for learning language because it is easier to learn language skills at a high level earlier rather than later in life. Some parents think they need to wait until their child has mastered one language before starting a second language. However, babies who are learning two languages learn as many patterns in their first language as babies who are only learning one language. This is one reason why it is better to learn second languages earlier – infants are great at figuring out patterns of languages.
Infants are also fantastic at quickly learning new vocabulary words once they understand around 50 words. While the first 50 words may take a very long time to learn, babies can quickly pick up vocabulary words after that.
The number of new synapses related to language acquisition peaks before 11 months of age, so babies’ brains are developing very rapidly in the language areas. Since about 75% of the mass of your child’s brain is formed by age two, it is easy to figure out that the brain develops differently based on when your child learns. It is still better to start at age 5 than it is at age 15, so start as soon as you can.
One study found that children who learned a second language after the age of 11 had two distinct areas of the brain for understanding language – one for their native language and one for their second language. On the other hand, children who learned a second language by the age of four had one large area of the brain which was active for both languages. This suggests that children who learn language skills in their first several years of life are able to develop brains that are more efficient than children who learn those skills later in life.
2) Choose a language (or languages) to teach your child.
You may want to consider several factors when deciding on the language(s).
A. family backgrounds
B. influence of the language
C. how easy it will be to teach the language
D. job opportunities for your child in 25 years
If you have relatives who only speak a language that is not your child’s native language, it will be important for your child to learn that language in order to have close communication with them. In these cases, it will be much easier for your baby to learn the second language than it will be for most (older) relatives to learn your child’s first language. And it will be much easier to teach the languages that family members speak.
According to George Weber, who used a logical formula to calculate a language’s influence, English is currently the world’s most influential language. Here is George Weber’s list – compiled from the early 1980s through 1995:
2. French (62% as influential as English)
3. Spanish (54% as influential as English)
4. Russian (43%)
5. Arabic (38%)
6. Chinese (35%)
7. German (32%)
8. Japanese (27%)
9. Portuguese (Brazilian) (27%)
10. Hindi/Urdu (24%)
More than a decade later, Weber stated in 2008 that the languages still had the same rankings. However, over time, languages may become more or less influential. One factor to consider when choosing a language for your child is predicting which languages will become more influential in the next 20 or 30 years. It appears that Chinese (Mandarin) is increasing in its influence at a faster rate than most (if not all) of the other very influential languages.
3) Try different teaching methods with your baby.
A. If you or your partner are fluent in another language, one of you could speak primarily one language to your child while the other speaks their only language. If you and your partner are both fluent in two or more languages, then it may be better if you both speak both languages since you will have slightly different ways of pronouncing some words and since you will use different vocabularies with your child.
- Your child will need to see and hear language frequently over a long period of time to learn multiple languages.
- You probably want to talk to your child more than the average parent since she/he is learning at least two languages.
- You, and anyone else who spends time with your baby, should describe his senses throughout the day in as many languages as you can. In other words, talk about what he is looking at, tasting, smelling, listening to, touching, and describe how he is moving. Talk about whatever appears to interest him throughout the day and he should learn the languages at or near the level of native speakers.
- Read the tips about how to talk to babies and apply them to all of the languages you are teaching.
- Speak in complete thoughts in English and complete thoughts in each of the other languages.
- When your baby is learning somewhat similar languages phonetically, for instance English, French, Spanish, Dutch, or Vietnamese, it will likely help your child learn phonics by learning more than one written language.
- When speaking to your child don’t switch back and forth from English to the second language within a thought or a sentence. Speak in complete thoughts in English and complete thoughts in the other languages. Mixing up the languages within the same sentence does not allow your child to learn proper grammar in either language.
B. Hire a babysitter who is fluent in another language or find a day care provider who speaks another language. Ask your babysitter to do the above activities (1-7).
C. Form a social group with other families and invite a “teacher” (who is fluent with a native accent) to teach the children and adults using children’s books and natural dialogue situations.
D. Use videos, books, computer software, and/or audio tapes to expose your child to other languages. Your Baby Can Read! is available in many languages.
E. Travel to areas (across town or around the world) where other languages are spoken and limit your use of your native language while you are there. In other words, try to speak the second language as much as you can.
F. If you are learning a second language with your baby, try to communicate for ten minutes only in the second language. You will make mistakes and likely be looking up a lot of information, but the real life experiences will help you learn. Gradually increase the time you are spending speaking in the second language. Obviously, it is much better for your baby to hear the native speakers, so these experiences will give your baby an opportunity to interact with fluent speakers. Politely ask them to talk to your baby in their native language each time you travel to areas where other languages are spoken. By learning a second language with your baby, your child may get more opportunities to practice the language.
4) Decide whether you will teach your baby to read in your native language first, then teach second languages later, or teach your child to read in multiple languages at the same time.
We have heard from many parents that they successfully taught their babies to read in multiple languages simultaneously. Many other parents taught their children to read in English first, then quickly added other languages. So which way is best, simultaneously or sequentially? While more research is needed to definitively answer that, I am hypothesizing based on theory and two decades of experiences from other families and my own.
A. Learning to Read in Two or Three Languages Simultaneously
If the languages are very similar phonetically to each other, then it may help your child’s phonetic ability. For example, if you are teaching your baby to read in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese, it may help your child learn phonics faster compared to only learning to read in English. I say this because Vietnamese is considered a perfect phonetic language and Spanish is also much more phonetic than English.
If the languages are not similar phonetically to each other, then it could take a little longer for the child to learn to read and speak the first language. The exception to this would be if you are speaking the same amount to your child in the first language as the average baby would normally receive AND you are also showing your child written language frequently. In other words, if you increase the overall amount of language that your baby sees and hears significantly by adding the other languages, then there may not be an initial delay. It’s even possible that your child will learn the first language faster than normal. Considering the large amount of time that parents are often on their phones, laptops, or otherwise occupied, I don’t think it is that difficult to dramatically increase the overall amount of language exposure your baby receives.
Over several years, the benefits of having learned multiple languages in infancy could be significant. People who learn more than one language generally have more flexible thinking, they can communicate with more people, and their native language skills improve. They could have long-term benefits such as testing out of second language requirements in college and having more job opportunities available to them.
B. Learning to Read in the Native Language First, then Other Language(s) Sequentially
Many parents start by teaching their baby to read in their native language first, then they add other languages. If your baby can read in English, then your baby will likely learn to read in phonetic languages such as Vietnamese or Spanish very easily. Even French or Dutch would be relatively easy to learn. Other languages such as Japanese would take longer. But the baby would still have learned that symbols represent words so there would be some advantage of having learned to read in an alphabetic language first.
- Start early.
- Choose the best languages for your family situation.
- Be consistent over a long period of time.
- Use native speakers.
- Don’t mix the two languages within a thought or sentence.