You’ve probably heard that children have a natural penchant for learning a language. They say that children are practically sponges for language, and if you introduce a second one to them early enough, you’ll start raising multilingual kids.
It is certainly true that children’s brains are wired to learn new things, and it is possible to introduce them to a second language in their earliest years to give them some great cognitive advantages down the road. However, it should be said that it’s not quite as straightforward as many people think.
And, if there are any misconceptions, it can lead to frustrations for both the parents and the children, which means they may give up on the experience all too soon.
So, let’s take a look at why kids seem to retain languages so easily, what could get in the way of the learning process, and why you might consider encouraging your children to take the plunge and discover a new language and culture.
Let’s Reconsider the Sponge Metaphor
When people say that kids are like sponges for a new language, it seems to imply that they can just soak it up just by being in the general proximity, whether they do anything or not.
While that may be true in some cases – and at least partially true in most cases – the fact is that will take more than proximity to absorb a new language.
In a great article on the New York Times, a Dr. Muñoz, who had done extensive research on the subject, pointed out that children are only sponges for languages when they get some serious exposure to it.
“You need a high frequency of input, of good quality,” she said. “You have to live with the language, use the language and function in the language.”
In another study, it was suggested that kids don’t have some kind of super-secret learning mechanism when it comes to new languages. It just seems like they do because of the amount of time in which they are exposed to the language.
How much time they will need to fully absorb the language, though, will be different for everyone.
And it turns out that one of the biggest factors in how long it will take is the reason the child has for learning a language.
It’s not enough for a parent to want the child to learn the language. The child will have to have their own reason for wanting to learn the language.
In most cases, this could be something simple. Usually, if the child is in a new place where all their potential friends speak a different language, chances are they’ll soak it up really fast and put it to use.
So, to continue the metaphor, even if they’re soaking up the language and internalizing it, they’ll need a good reason before they will try to squeeze it back out.
The Advantages of Learning Languages as a Child
So, now that we’ve cleared up that metaphor a little, let’s look at why children tend to learn and retain a new language so well.
Essentially, a young child’s mind is wired for learning, and in the first few years of their lives, they’re particularly well positioned to pick up a language or two.
In fact, they’re going to use the same brain functions that they used to pick up their native language to start building their skills in a second one.
In a child, this can happen unconsciously, unlike in teens and adults who have to make conscious efforts to memorize words and recognize lingual patterns.
In other words, the entire process is simply less complex for a child. They’re not interested in the grammatical underpinnings that make a language work. They’re a lot less self-conscious about any mistakes they might make, and they’re unconcerned with precise expressions.
Children simply know how to associate words with meaning and put them to use. And they find a lot more pride in each of their linguistic accomplishments, so they’re more excited to push ahead and learn something new.
When Should a Child Start Learning a Second Language?
Every child is different, and kids have their own ways of learning, so it’s hard to give an exact timeframe for starting to learn a second language.
Some parents have even expressed concerns that if they start too early, it could cause a learning delay in their native language (although, in any cases where that has happened, any issues usually sort themselves out in their preteens).
So, it comes down to you, as the parent, to decide when you want to start Arabic lessons for your kids. It will be up to you to stay involved in their work and make sure they’re picking things up, not feeling overwhelmed, and enjoying the experience.
It’s Worth It
While a second language is a benefit in and of itself, there are, in fact, several other benefits that come along with it. Studies have shown that language learners experience improved cognitive skills, develop better learning abilities, build stronger memory capacity, and increase their logic and creativity.
While the sponge metaphor may not be a perfect way to describe why kids learn and retain languages so well, the simple fact is that through immersion and a little encouragement from you, the benefits will be worth it.