My dad’s first language was French. I took French throughout elementary school and continued with a couple of courses into university.
While I don’t consider myself bilingual, I know enough French to be able to put my bike on a train in Lyon and know that it can be safely stored in Paris until I arrive a week later.
I call it functionally bilingual. I think it’s one of the most important gifts that my parents gave me – the gift of being able to communicate in another language.
The New York Times had a recent op/ed suggesting that bilingual people are smarter.
“Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.” [NYT]
That should be enough for any alpha parent to jump on the bandwagon. So when should parents get their kids into second language studies? When is a good time for kids to start them learning?
Short answer: it’s never too early.
Take 10 minutes and watch this TED Talk from Patricia Kuhl about “The Linguistic Genius of Babies.”
“Babies and children are geniuses until they turn 7. Then there is a systematic decline,” says Kuhl. Once they hit grade 2, the learning curve heads sharply downward. In other words, our kids could pick up something random, like Mandarin, far quicker than you or I could. It helps if you can speak the language around them too.
It wasn’t the school or university courses that made me bilingual-ish, it was my dad speaking it to me when I was young.
Even if all you have is your high school equivalent of French or Spanish or German, try and do counting, colors, food, and more with your kids. It’s more valuable than just flipping on the Spanish version of Diego on the DVD player; the research shows that kids exposed to just foreign language on TV don’t pick it up. It’s the social cues from language they need to learn.
So if you can, get your kids in second language classes as early as possible. Every little bit you expose them to at the beginning helps them down the road – when they need to drop their bike off at a train station in Barcelona, Stuttgart, or Lyon.
Want another cool language related TED Talk? Check out Deb Roy’s study of the birth of a word.