By Corey Heller
Photo credit: Christina Rutz
There are thousands of reasons out there for why you should help children learn a language when they are young – very young.
Some studies point to the brain benefits of children who are raised with more than one language. Other studies explain how children naturally lose the ability to hear (and thus pronounce) the myriad of sounds around them as time passes. Start their language exposure before that happens! Other studies claim that children who master more than one language are “smarter” in targeted ways and therefore have the chance to excel in a variety of areas, including education.
Although I find all of those reasons fascinating, I find it all less than compelling when it comes to deciding whether or not I should raise my children with more than one language. Those reasons are all so very dry and pragmatic and *sigh* healthy.
Language for me is beautiful, multifaceted and magical. It’s cutting into a thick piece of cheese-cake: decadent, satisfying and daring. Yet it is also light and uplifting, like a gondola ride above the mountain-tops. Language for me is emotional and personal and imbued with more feelings than I can describe.
Despite this, I do think that raising children multilingually from as young an age as possible is important, beneficial, and *gasp* practical but not for the reasons listed at the beginning of this post. I believe that starting young gives our children tremendous benefits in very specific and obvious ways, ones that we may not realize until down the road.
I encourage you to do everything in your power to help your children learn languages when they are young.
Why? Read on…
When my children were young, it was easy for me to raise them in my second language (a language that I didn’t learn until college). Speaking German with them was fun and entertaining and satisfying and their first words in German delighted my husband and me to no end.
As my children grew older, their responses in German became more certain and confident. I was elated! In fact, my mother, a monolingual English speaker, lamented the fact that she couldn’t understand anything that her grandchildren were saying since it was all in German. Of course, before she knew it, my children were just as capable in English!
But what happens when we age? We grow, become more and more part of the world around us and, yes, our language skills develop in leaps and bounds. We long to communicate and participate in the world around us and language is crucial in this process.
Before I knew it, we were having full-blown conversations in German. All five of us. Together.
It was a smooth and comfortable transition from childhood monosyllable responses to sentences and then entire paragraphs about things in which my children were interested: Legos, Playmobil, Lily our cat, blossoming trees outside, playing with friends, the rare days of snow in our front yard.
Language learning had been painless and here we were conversing comfortably. No pain or frustration. No memorization of vocabulary or grammar. No effort.
Traversing the Summit
The problem with raising children in a non-native language in a country where the language is not spoken is that things can get difficult, very difficult, if you aren’t keeping up with the language yourself.
As we all know, if we don’t use our language, it slowly weakens, like a muscle that gets very little use. Our language skills slowly diminish, bit by bit, without us even really noticing.
This is what has been happening to me. I read as much as I can in German, I watch films in German, I even talk to my German husband in German (most of the time). But despite this, my German language skills have not been developing much from where they were when I came back to the United States 14 years ago, and I am fairly certain that they have been waning.
Sure, I could have done more about this: Met with more German friends, done more chatting online with Germans, written more emails in German, practiced German with the dedicated focus that I had when I first learned it. But I haven’t.
This all would be ok except for the fact that my children have been growing and developing and their language needs have expanded. They no longer engage in baby chatter. They now have the need to discuss complex concepts with detailed descriptions. They can’t wait to tell me about the latest construction they built in Minecraft or something new they learned in Math Club or in a history documentary. They long to express what is in their minds with ever-increasing detail.
This is fantastic except for the fact that their complex language needs now have come to outreach my German skills – I can no longer help them expand their German language abilities. I don’t know how to express the nuances of their descriptions in German and therefore can not help them with the vocabulary and grammar that they need. Sure, we we can look up a number of words together (which is fun and educational) but it just doesn’t fulfill the needs of spontaneous conversations and discussions which they desperately need to expand their German language skills.
For my children to be able to express themselves fully in German, they need to be exposed to these more complex elements in German.
Why You Must Start Young
Even though my children and I are hitting a road-block when it comes to complex conversations in German, they do have their native-speaking father with whom to talk. This isn’t even close to the amount of language exposure they receive with me since I am with them all day long (we homeschool). But it definitely makes a difference in their German language skills. He provides missing words and corrects grammatical errors along the way when they are together. And most importantly, he provides examples of more complex German which our children hear and take in.
Why do I bother to explain all of this? What does this have to do with your family’s situation?
Because of this: My children can only do what they do now because they have had years and years of developing their language skills. They can only now engage in more complex discussions in German because they have had years and years of becoming familiar with the language, adding new words and grammar slowly and methodically over many years.
If they were to try and start now (as they are doing with Spanish) they would be faced with an enormous gap between what they would want to say and what they actually could say. This is what makes language learning so painful. Instead, they are able to express themselves in German, filling in vocabulary holes here and there rather than feeling like they need to traverse deep crevasses.
So when people ask me why we should start our children young with a language, I say that it is so that our children will have a chance to develop their language skills over a long period of time.
If we start young, then when our children attempt to speak their first few words and sentences, these will be appropriate for their age and conversational skills. It will feel natural and comfortable for their linguistic stage in life. They will not be starting out with single words when they so desperately want to describe something complex.
Since they will already feel very comfortable with the basics, it will be an easy, smooth transition to each new stage (as long as they are given opportunities to increase their language skills each step of the way).
For our children to enjoy their multilingualism, they need to be able to transition to each of these linguistic stages comfortably, without feeling that they are constantly struggling to express themselves. There is nothing worse than having something to say and lacking the ability to find the words to say it! And even worse: To attempt to say what we want to say but instead to be constantly corrected the whole time! The only way to mitigate this is to make sure that our children’s language skills are one step ahead of what they wish to discuss.
Yes, brain benefits are awesome and it will be great if my children will always speak without a strong accent in each of their languages. But ultimately, what really counts with language is the ability to say out loud what is burning a hole in our minds.
If we can help our children comfortably express themselves with subtlety and nuance, then we will have blown the brain benefits out of the water!