These Are the Biggest Benefits of Learning a Second Language as a Child
Speaking and understanding more than one language can open a world of opportunities. As a bilingual individual myself, I've experienced some of these pluses firsthand. Not only am I able to communicate with the Spanish-speaking side of my family, I've also been able to speak with locals while visiting Spanish-speaking countries, translate for others, and have been offered multiple job opportunities thanks to this in-demand skill. It's also given me a wider perspective on the world and its various cultures.
While these are all wonderful perks, there are even more benefits to being bilingual (and, of course, multilingual) that experts are still scratching the surface on.
In a study published in January 2021 in the journal Scientific Reports of 127 adults, for example, two cognitive benefits for early bilinguals (those who learned two languages as children) were identified. The first is their ability to notice visual changes at a faster rate than those who picked up a second language later in life. The other revealed early bilinguals have more control over their ability to shift their attention from one image to another—which may stem from practicing "shifting" quickly between two languages.
The benefits of raising bilinguals don't end there. Experts weigh in on more positives for kids speaking more than one language and offer tips to help you raise a bilingual child.
"Children who are raised with at least two languages have been found to have greater social understanding," says Oren Boxer, Ph.D., neuropsychologist and advisor at BumoBrain, a platform supporting parents looking for options aside from traditional schools.
Studies on young bilingual children have found these kids tend to better understand others' "perspectives, thoughts, desires, and intentions" in comparison to monolingual children. "Part of this strength has to do with a more robust language system that can more readily detect certain features of communication such as prosody, the rhythm of speech, and tone of voice," says Dr. Boxer. "It is hypothesized that this developmental experience is different from monolingual children and it facilitates a more robust understanding of another's perspective, or theory of mind."
Empathy alone isn't enough to be seen as a benefit, though. Dr. Boxer says it's important to know how to cope with these empathic feelings, and to be able to distinguish one's own needs from the needs for others.
Can Boost Brain Function
Being bilingual is good for a child's brain development. "They are better at planning, problem solving, concentration, and multitasking," says Kristen Denzer, CEO and founder of Tierra Encantada, a Spanish-immersion education program.
Denzer, whose background is in psychology and educational policy, says these cognitive advantages can be seen quite early. "Infants immersed in a dual-language environment have demonstrated their advanced executive functioning as young as 7 months old when compared to monolingual peers," she says, pointing to a study published in 2009 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
And these benefits may continue into older age by preventing brain disorders that commonly present themselves in the mid-60s. "Bilingual individuals are even able to ward off the onset of dementia and Alzheimer's an extra four years on average compared with those that speak just one language," says Denzer. The reason? Knowing more than one language can contribute to the enhancement of cognitive reserve or the "brain's ability to improvise and find alternate ways of getting a job done" and prevent damage.
- RELATED: 5 Myths About Growing up Bilingual
Bilingual children may also have an advantage in school, including with literacy. "Studies have shown that when a child learns a second language," says Denzer, "they show accelerated progress when learning to read compared with monolingual peers."
Bilingual kids also have a stronger foundation for picking up more languages down the line. This can give them a greater edge when they embark on their professional careers as more and more industries are seeking out candidates who speak multiple languages.
How to Help Your Kid Learn a Second Language
So what should parents do if they want to help their babies and young children learn a second language to reap all these benefits?
Begin as soon as possible—even before your baby is born. "Language acquisition begins around 30 weeks in utero as a child's auditory processing comes online," says Dr. Boxer. "As their brains process the sounds of language, specific changes are made to the language center of the brain so that they are best equipped to quickly acquire words in their native language. This process is evident at birth as newborns cry in the accent of their native language."
Seek helpful tools
Immersion is key for second-language acquisition. Denzer recommends parents increase exposure to the second language at home by way of reading bilingual books, having playdates with bilingual friends, hiring bilingual babysitters, and even having screen time in the second language.
If possible and desired for your family, look at schooling options that focus on another language. "A school with a dual immersion program is often quite effective at introducing and reinforcing new languages," says Dr. Boxer.
And take advantage if there are two caregivers at home. Denzer recommends having one parent speak only in English while the other speaks only in the second language to increase the language input.
Don't be discouraged if you're monolingual
If you're a parent who only speaks one language, there are still ways to raise a kid who speaks an additional tongue, though Denzer says these parents need to be "more intentional" in their approach. These parents can opt for similar immersion tools mentioned above and language immersion early education programs.
Learning alongside your child is another good approach. This might include taking your own adult-level language classes, practicing with apps like Duolingo, and watching your own favorite shows with the audio and/or captions in the second language. You can even join language-learning groups online where you can find other folks to practice your skills with.
Forget the myths
Don't worry about the misconception that bilingualism confuses kids—that isn't the case. But parents who worry their little ones are lagging in English should know "children who simultaneously learn two or more languages will initially be slower to develop vocabulary in each language compared to monolingual children," says Dr. Boxer, adding the discrepancy typically closes around ages 8 to 10.
"One of the most important things to remember is that monolingualism is a trait exclusive to Americans," adds Dr. Boxer. "Children in almost every other country in the world are raised with exposure to more than one language; sometimes three or four." When you look at it that way, it's no wonder so many more American families are looking to expand their family's own linguistic capabilities.