Early Exposure to a Second Language & Reading to Your Kids Can Give Them A Leg Up

I thought I would share some interesting research I’ve seen recently, which may be of interest to some of you as well.  It may already be common knowledge, but a recent study described in this article and in the below video demonstrates that infants raised in bilingual (and presumably multilingual) environments demonstrate cognitive benefits at a younger age than previously thought.

Another study discussed in the Huffington Post shows the importance of reading aloud to children from birth, which may form part of the “language-rich interactions” that are so beneficial to young children and which may be associated with cognitive benefits years down the road–one study discussed in the article shows that children who grow up among books are”nearly 20 times more likely to graduate from college.”

So! I encourage you to find some time in the day to read to your kids (and if you can, do it in the minority language)! Make it part of your nighttime or morning rituals (or both!) and enjoy the many rewards associate with reading with your children.  If you are looking for some recommendations, check out my past ones here.  And for any mothers/parents to newborn or young infants out there who are deep in baby-world and can’t stand another kids’ book right now, I highly recommend finding an adult book of interest in your preferred language and read that aloud to them. When N was a newborn and had marathon nursing sessions, reading aloud was often the only thing keeping me awake! (And I confess, I sometimes also read aloud from Facebook–but hey, whatever works!)

“The linguistic genius of babies”

I came across this 2010 Ted Talk by Patricia Kuhl recently, which is certainly not new to some, but was new to me.  I thought I would share as it supports what we’re all trying to do to some degree:  expose our children to language early and often.

Ms. Kuhl touches upon an interesting point, which is basically that children should be exposed to new languages as early as possible.  She starts out by explaining that “babies and children are geniuses” at learning languages “until they turn seven, and then there’s a systematic decline. After puberty, we fall off the map.”  This is not to say that you can’t learn a language after 7, but it does become increasingly more difficult.  I can attest to this, as I briefly flirted with the idea of learning Slovak, until I realized learning a handful of phrases during my morning commute was not going to cut it (and did you know Slovak has 7 conjugations and even nouns are conjugated?!).

 

The Bilingual Burden

Raising bilingual or trilingual children is incredibly easy — for the kids. Both my husband and I were lucky enough to be raised bilingually (in my case) and trilingually (in his). We thought our memories of our childhoods — happy, carefree — reflected how easy it would be to raise children with multiple languages.  And well, we were wrong  (just as we were wrong about a lot of our other ideas surrounding parenthood, because “sleep like a baby” means they sleep a lot, right?).

Most sources I’ve found suggest that exposing your children to the target language at least 30% of their waking time is enough.  Though that seems like an easy threshold to meet, between school and other activities where they are mainly exposed to English, I often get antsy that their Spanish and Slovak will suffer.  Both of us work outside of the home as well, so we’ve had to get creative in figuring out ways to expose them to Slovak and Spanish and keep them interested (more on that later).

Raising kids to speak multiple languages requires a concerted effort beyond anything we anticipated. For kids in the U.S., like ours, English is so easy — everyone at the park and at school speaks it, most of the books in the library or at the bookstore use it, and it’s the default for most movies, shows, songs, and videos they’re exposed to.  In one sense, this is great since we don’t have to worry that they won’t learn English.  But in another sense, this also means that the main burden of their Spanish and Slovak abilities depends entirely on the steps we take to ensure they are exposed to a rich, diverse variety of their heritage languages.  Neither my husband nor I have family nearby and our new neighborhood is incredibly homogenous (so much so that when a neighbor heard me speaking Spanish, she ran over to express her happiness that we were increasing the town’s diversity), so the pressure is on us alone.

Though it is difficult to maintain, the benefits of being multilingual are well-documented.  But reviewing them always gives me a boost in morale. All the times I respond “que?” in feigned ignorance when N speaks English to me will pay off (I tell myself as I Google for the hundredth time how to say raccoon or moose or snowplow in Spanish because we definitely did not have those in Puerto Rico when I was growing up)! So for my benefit, and maybe for yours too, here’s a short list of all the ways being bilingual or multilingual will benefit your children:

You get the point.  And if you like infographics, like me, here’s a nice one from Lifehack that demonstrates the benefits of bilingualism:

I should also note that as a bonus, our kids have the added luxury of being able to speak to their grandparents and other relatives in their native languages (some of whom do not speak English), allowing for deeper bonds and which has proved rewarding beyond words.

Anecdotally, both of our children, “N,” an almost 4 year old boy, and “E” an almost two year old girl, fully understand and speak Spanish, which is the main language they hear at home with me and with our caregiver (who we chose, in part, for her Spanish).  They both also fully understand Slovak (and speak some), even though their exposure to it is limited to a couple of hours during the week and a few more on the weekend when my husband is home and not working.  As for English, N started preschool two mornings a week at 2.5 years old knowing  a few scant words and phrases in English (“mine,” “my turn,” “share,” do you sense a theme?) that he picked up at the park.  Now, at almost 4, he is fluent in English and mostly caught up with his peers in English.

A lot of times it feels like we’re in this alone, but the more I speak with others who are also attempting to raise (or have already raised) multilingual children, the more it feels like it’s possible.  Maybe raising bilingual or multilingual children has proven easy for you, in which case I would love to hear from you and learn from your experiences as well!