The Benefits of Learning a Second Language as a Child

Raising kids to speak more than one language can offer emotional and academic benefits. Here's how to help your kids pick up another language.

An image of two children talking.
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Speaking and understanding more than one language can open a world of opportunities. As a bilingual individual, I've experienced some of these pluses firsthand. Overall, it's given me a broader perspective on the world and its various cultures.

Not only am I able to communicate with the Spanish-speaking side of my family, but I've also been able to speak with native speakers while visiting Spanish-speaking countries and translate for others. I have also been offered multiple job opportunities thanks to this in-demand skill.

Kids who know more than one language can reap all these benefits. Read on for the positives for multi-lingual kids and tips for how to raise a bilingual child.

The Benefits of Being a Multi-Lingual Child

In a study published in January 2021 in the journal Scientific Reports of 127 adults, two cognitive benefits for early bilinguals (those who learned two languages as children) were identified.

The first was their ability to notice visual changes faster than those who picked up a second language later in life. The other revealed early bilinguals had more control over their ability to shift their attention from one image to another—which may stem from practicing "shifting" quickly between two languages.

While these are all wonderful perks, there are even more benefits to being bilingual (and, of course, multilingual) that experts are still learning about.

Encourages empathy

"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.

For example, a 2013 article in Learning Landscapes Journal found bilingual kids tend to demonstrate empathy better than their monolingual peers. Specifically, bilingual children were advanced in understanding the following:

  • Other perspectives
  • Other thoughts
  • Other desires
  • Other intentions
  • Tone of voice

"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."

However, encouraging empathy alone isn't enough to be seen as a benefit. 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 of others.

Boosts 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, she says, 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.

That's based on 2017 research in Clinical Interventions in Aging that reviewed bilingualism as a strategy for delaying Alzheimer's disease. The reason? It may be that knowing more than one language can contribute to the enhancement of cognitive reserve (resilience to neuropathological damage in the brain).

However, the research on this topic is inconsistent and hotly debated. While some research supports bilingual individuals having a higher executive function and lower levels of dementia later in life, other research has had conflicting results. Therefore, there isn't a scientific consensus on bilingualism and its cognitive benefits.

Academic Advantage

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."

Denzer refers to a 2000 paper on bilingualism and literacy presented at the Research Symposium on High Standards in Reading for Students from Diverse Language Groups in Washington, D.C., which explains that bilingualism provides children with heightened skills necessary for literacy.

According to 2021 research in Frontiers in Psychology, learning two languages at an early age may reduce proficiency in a dominant language. However, earlier studies also show literacy benefits, including bilingual children's better performance than monolingual children on meta-linguistic awareness tests and acquisition of new words.

Another 2016 study looked at the outcomes of students in dual-language immersion programs. Researchers found that after four years (Kindergarten through third grade) of immersion learning, students scored similarly in reading and speaking in all language skills tested regardless of their home language. But, those whose home language was Spanish outperformed their immersion peers in listening and writing.

Bilingual children may also perform better academically. For example, a 2013 study in Bilingual Research Journal found that two-way immersion programs may enhance reading and math skills in both minority-language and majority-language students.

Plus, according to a 2017 study published by Cambridge University Press, 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 industries seek candidates who speak multiple languages.

How to Help Your Kid Learn a Second Language

So, what can you do if you want to help your children learn a second language to reap all these benefits?

Start early

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."

Further, it's long been understood that children can learn a second language with less difficulty than adults. Kids who learn a second language are often indistinguishable from native speakers, while adults who learn a second language typically have more difficulty acquiring the proper accent and grammar.

The good news is that a 2018 study in Cognition found that the learning rate doesn't begin to decline until around 17 years. This means no matter your child's age, it's never too late to start learning a second language in childhood.

Seek helpful tools

Immersion is vital for second-language acquisition. If you don't speak a second language at home, Denzer recommends you increase exposure to the second language at home in the following ways:

  • Reading bilingual books
  • Having playdates with bilingual friends
  • Hiring bilingual babysitters
  • Having screen time in the second language

If possible and desired for your family, look at schooling options focusing 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 bilingual 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 language, though Denzer says you'll need to be "more intentional" in your approach. 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
  • Watching your favorite shows with the audio and captions in the second language

In addition, joining language-learning groups online can allow you to find other folks to practice your skills.

Forget the myths

Don't worry about the misconception that bilingualism confuses kids—that isn't the case. But parents who fear 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 linguistic capabilities.

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