26 January 2010

Introducing multiple languages to young children helps strengthen the architecture of the developing brain.

Parents and educators sometimes worry that introducing multiple languages to children too early may lead to linguistic and cognitive delays. Research performed by the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) shows that just the opposite may be true. Children introduced to a second language at an early age do not lag behind their peers. In fact, it is common for young children to mix multiple languages in one sentence, and if bilingual children show a lack of vocabulary recognition, they quickly catch up to their monolingual counterparts by elementary school. Further, bilingual children show a distinct advantage in reading acquisition due to their familiarity with a variety of phonemes. With each new language learned, the brain develops new neural connections, thus strengthening the architecture of the brain and preparing the child for future academic successes.

Experts at Zero to Three offer this advice for multilingual families. Be consistent: speak one language at home and the other outside of the home. They also point out those children who learn their family’s native language early on share a stronger sense of cultural identity. A study conducted by the SCDOE followed four different cohorts of children, each one introduced to a language at a later age (0, 3, 5, and 7 years). Results show that earlier is better. The area of the brain that permits easy language acquisition becomes active at infancy and closes around 10 years old. Cities like San Francisco have developed language immersion preschools citing benefits such as improved understanding in all academic subjects, higher standardized test scores, and better career opportunities.

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