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Home > Studies on Early Learning

The most common question we get from parents when they are considering whether or not their child should learn a second language, is that they are concerned the child's English language skills and learning will suffer. The best way to address these concerns is to read about recent studies on how the learning process works in children. Here you will find some great examples of these types of studies. We are also always more than happy to discuss with any parent our own experiences; after all, this is what we do.

Can Preschool Children Be Taught a Second Language?
Learning a Second Language at an Early Age
Early Dual Language Learning
Foreign Language in Preschool

Can Preschool Children Be Taught a Second Language?

by Jeannette Vos Ed.D.

For years it has been thought that teaching a foreign language to preschool-age children would be futile. However, recent studies indicate that the best time for a child to learn another language is in the first three to four years of life. Here are some important reasons for exposing children to early second language learning.

Language Learning Is a Natural Process When Children Are Young. Adults often try to learn languages in a contrived way. Most people, for example, can recite the verbs in French-je suis, tu es, il est, elle est, nous sommes, vous êtes, etc. Yet they find it much more difficult to speak French naturally when they visit France. Yet when people immerse themselves in a language like children, through play and exploration, they can learn a language quickly and easily. So the more we become child-like in language learning, the easier it becomes.

Children growing up in a well-rounded environment learn to speak at least 2,000 basic words by the time they are four years old. Simply observing how babies learn to talk proves that they are natural learners. During the first six months of life, babies babble using 70 sounds that make up all the languages in the world. They will then learn to talk using only the sounds and words they pick up from their environment, most importantly from their parents and caregivers. A baby's brain will then discard the ability to speak in languages he or she does not hear (Kotulak, 1996).

Preschool Years Are Vital Years. "During this period and especially the first three years of life, the foundations for thinking, language, vision, attitudes, aptitudes, and other characteristics are laid down," says Ronald Kotulak, author of Inside the Brain. Consequently, it would be a waste not to use a child's natural ability to learn during his or her most vital years, when learning a second language is as easy as learning the first.

Since 50 percent of the ability to learn is developed in the first years of life and another 30 percent by age eight, early childhood development programs have the opportunity to encourage early learning and development. This does not mean, however, that 50 to 80 percent of one's intelligence, wisdom, or knowledge is formed during early childhood. It simply means that during the first few years of life, children form their main learning pathways in the brain (Bloom, 1964). There are six main pathways to the brain. They include learning by sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, and doing (Dryden & Vos, 1997). Later in life, everything an individual learns will grow from the information gained during these early years.

Learning a Second Language at an Early Age

by François Thibaut, Founder of The Language Workshop for Children

Children hold a unique ability to acquire language skills and build first-rate verbal processing skills that has been proven to play a critical role in their future careers, as well as their successes along the way. Some parents and educators believe a second language does not become imperative until high school. However, we have outlined eight key reasons why children, even those as young as six months old, will benefit from learning these skills as early as possible. In fact, The Language Workshop for Children (LWFC) believes that the younger the student, the better.

(1) Capture the Critical Period: At about seven months, a baby's neocortex develops to the point that their long-term memory starts working. This is the beginning of what psycholinguists and neurolinguists call a child's critical period. During this stage, and until the brain begins losing its plasticity around age 12 or 13, children have their greatest potential to absorb and retain language skills. Mr. Thibaut cautions, "You don't want to let a child's prime time to learn a new language slip away."

(2) Boost English Language Skills. Many English words share Latin roots with Spanish, French Italian. Learning the meaning of a foreign word enhances a student's chance of knowing the meaning of an English word.

(3) Improve Verbal Test Scores. Seventy five percent of the verbal section of the SAT I and a large portion of the ISEE, SSAT and ACT tests, measure vocabulary skills. Studying another language builds an inventory of root word similarities, driving higher school entrance exam scores.

(4) Speak Like a Native. Language is stored in the brain's left hemisphere, with pronunciation and grammar in the Brocas area. If we learn a word after puberty we will always pronounce it differently than if we learned it before our critical period ends. This is because by age 13, newly learned words are channeled to a completely different place in the Brocas area. As Thibaut says, "That's why my accent will always be charming."

(5) Learn Before We're Self-Conscious. Children have emotional advantages too. Since they're not as self-conscious as adults, they are not afraid of getting it wrong or saying it funny. Youngsters are willing to call out their new foreign words (whether right or wrong) and their spontaneity pays off with a faster fluency adoption.

(6) Children's Language Classes use Whole Brain Learning. Many psycholinguists believe it is critical to link emotion to learning. Language education for both children and adults is more successful when techniques are used that link the left hemisphere's skills (logic, math, and literal meaning) with right brain skills (emotion, music and voice melody). One example of this is the structured playgroup approach (pioneered by Thibaut in 1973 to teach children). As Mr. Thibaut says, "Children remember what makes them happy."

(7) Future Careers. The more we know, the more we are worth. Learning multiple languages gives us the tools to do business in a global world. There is an ever growing need in corporations for candidates that are able to understand contracts drawn in another language, negotiate terms with a foreign vendor and more. Help your children be more marketable when they set out in the workforce.

(8) Learning from the LWFC's Two-Year Olds. The proof is in the pudding. Thibaut's Manhattan Language Workshop for Children divides Tots into three age groups: 6-16 months, 13-24 months and 2 to 3 years.

In the past, the LWFC had grouped all the students (between the ages of 24 months to three years) by age. This resulted in children who had taken French for Tots or Spanish for Tots since they were 6 months old, learning in the same classroom with absolute beginners.

However Mr. Thibaut and his teachers saw that the experienced students were absorbing and repeating the vocabulary (which was designed to be new for all students) significantly faster than the inexperienced children.

If the teachers slowed down to allow the inexperienced students to follow, the seasoned children quickly got bored and began misbehaving. Then, if the teacher began introducing more complicated material again, the newer students were confused and could not respond.

It was clear. Spending 18 months in a language-rich structured playgroup had accelerated the early starter's verbal processing skills to such a degree that they could no longer be placed with children who, in other circumstances, would be considered their peers. Therefore, The LWFC created an Advanced Tots program where its seasoned two year olds now get the challenge they need.

Early Dual Language Learning

by F. Genesee 2008

Many parents, educators and other child care professionals believe that learning one language is normal, but that learning two languages is a burden and puts children at risk for delayed speech and language development. In his article, Fred Genesee from McGill University reviews research findings on the issues commonly associated with (and not always rightly so) bilingualism in babies and offers suggestions about dual language learning during the infancy and toddler period.

Genesee reminds parents that learning their family's different languages is beneficial for infants who can then fully function within their family. Also, because language is an integral part of cultural identity, "minority language children risk becoming alienated if they do not learn the home language."

Research has shown that children fluent in two languages have certain cognitive advantages compared to those who speak only one. They are better at problem solving, demonstrate greater creativity, and express more tolerant attitudes toward others, for instance. If children are going to benefit from these cognitive advantages, they must use both languages regularly. Genesee says that "parents and other child care providers should understand that if they want infants and toddlers to benefit cognitively from knowing two languages, they should be serious and committed to raising children bilingually." It is also important that dual language learning starts early because infants and toddlers are particularly adept at learning languages.

Significantly, research shows that simultaneous bilingual children go through the basic milestones in language acquisitions as children who learn only one language. These children do so at the same rate as monolingual children, provided they are given adequate learning environments. Bilingual children begin to babble at the same age as monolingual children. They say their first words at the same age and start to produce multiword sentences at the same age as well.

Many people assume that infants and toddlers can become confused by exposure to two languages, however Genesee reminds them that "as long as most people in the child's family, community, and child care facility use one language at a time, the child will learn that this is the appropriate way to use the two languages. Research has shown that most bilingual children keep their languages separate most of the time. When they mix, it is often to fill gaps in their vocabulary in one or the other language. Mixed does not mean that children are confused or impaired; they are simply using all of their language resources to express themselves."

Other research has revealed that even though simultaneous bilingual learners have approximately half as much exposure to each language as monolingual learners, they display the same basic developmental patterns at approximately the same ages as their monolingual counterparts. On the flip side of this, it is commonly thought that children with language impairment should learn just one language as learning two could result in even greater impairments and delays by exceeding their language learning capacity. Though there is very little research on dual language learning by children with SLI, Genesee explains how research evidence that is available suggests that children with language impairment can become bilingual.

Foreign Language in Preschool - The benefits of teaching multiple languages in day care or preschool

by Carla Snuggs

Learning foreign languages at an early age provides priceless advantages and benefits. If your daycare or preschool curriculum does not include curriculum that introduces children to foreign languages, you may want to rethink or restructure your program.

According to experts, introducing children to foreign languages should begin as early as possible. For a child, the advantages and benefits of learning multiple languages at an early age are extremely valuable and continue long into adulthood.

Benefits of Early Foreign Language Learning

Myelita Melton CEO of SpeakEasy Communications, Inc., and author of the SpeakEasy Spanish™ series stresses the numerous benefits of learning foreign languages at an early age:

  • When children learn multiple languages at a young age, they develop a life-long love of communicating with others.
  • By incorporating foreign languages into your curriculum, children develop a greater appreciation for diversity.
  • When young children learn about the structure of other languages, their ability in English is enhanced.
  • Because the brain automatically compartmentalizes each language correctly, young children have the ability to learn many languages without getting them confused.
  • When children learn a second language at an early age, they will achieve a more native grasp of both grammar and pronunciation in the second language.

Early Foreign Language Learning and Future Success

Francois Thibaut, founder of the Language Workshop for Children, discusses how learning languages at a young age provides a child with a firm foundation for greater success with respect to their education and career.

Young children who learn second languages often score higher on standardized tests, such as the SAT. “Since 50% of the verbal portions of the SAT tests measure a child’s knowledge of root words, studying Latin based languages (such as Spanish, French, and Italian) gives a child a tremendous start building the inventory of words roots they will need to achieve high SAT scores,” explains Thibaut.

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