As I child, I remember my morning cartoons being interrupted by frequent advertisements for a series of BBC language-learning videotapes. The ads promised that by watching the tapes, which featured cartoon animals counting and singing in French, German, and Italian, kids could easily and enjoyably learn a second language, thereby gaining an academic advantage for life.
Parents have been foisting language lessons on children for years; I myself spent many a childhood Saturday learning Spanish at the local university (except I learned the hard way -- no cartoon animals in sight). Until recently, it was uncommon to study languages other than European ones, but I now have friends whose children study Japanese, and my former high school in Ohio even offers classes in Mandarin. The value of knowing more than one language is indisputable, and most people believe in the value of teaching languages when a child is young. But how do children learn languages so quickly, and what are the most useful ones for today’s kids to study?
Start ’Em Young
Some parents urge their children to learn a second language because they want to prepare them for a multicultural and diverse world and enhance their job prospects, and some just want their kids to enjoy an educational experience they never had themselves. Regardless of the reasons, studying foreign languages provides proven academic and cognitive benefits for children. According to the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab, kids who are bilingual can actually pay attention in the presence of distracting stimuli better than kids who are monolingual, and the College Board reports that students who have studied a foreign language score better on the verbal portion of the SAT than students who have studied only English do. There’s even research that suggests that studying a foreign language can improve students’ math scores. Whether the goal is complete fluency or just a passing familiarity, knowing a second language—whatever it is—undoubtedly builds the cognitive pathways that lay the foundation for future academic success.
But why is it so important to become bilingual as a child? Since the 1950s, linguists and psychologists have been postulating that humans are born with an innate ability to quickly and intrinsically learn the structure, syntax, and grammar of their native language, but that the ability fades after childhood. Experts have proposed “nativist” theories of language learning, which said that the brains of human children are especially primed to learn languages, because of both the rapid growth of neurons before puberty and what psycholinguist Noam Chomsky called the Language Acquisition Device. According to Chomsky, the LAD is a part of the brain that allows children to absorb and mimic language, even though their exposure to the language might be broken or incomplete
. Although the prevailing opinion today is that children’s language abilities are the result of a combination of nature and nurture, there’s virtually no argument that something
happens during childhood that allows kids to absorb the foundations of language.
Easy as Un, Deux, Trois?