Written by Team ParentCircle and published on 22 October 2021.
Studies show that children who speak more than one language display improved cognitive ability and better concentration. Here's all you need to know.
"One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way." - Frank Smith, psycholinguist
Hari Bhaskar is only three years old but already speaks four languages. His mom talks to him in Telugu and his dad converses in English. His paternal grandparents who live with him in Bangalore interact in Hindi, while his nanny talks to him in Kannada.
Hari Bhaskar's is not a rare case in India. According to the Census of India, a stunning 255 million people speak at least two languages and close to 88 million speak in three or more languages. These numbers clearly indicate multilingualism is not a novelty but a norm in India. It is very common for children to be exposed to multiple languages from an early age. A child first picks up his mother tongue at home by listening to his parents and other family members. He is soon exposed to other languages at his daycare or preschool, or through interactions with other children or caretakers at home. These are instances of 'learning by immersion'.
In India, a stunning 255 million people speak at least two languages and close to 88 million speak three or more languages
When a child starts school, he is formally introduced to a language of instruction like English. As he moves up the ladder, he is also required to learn a second and third language as part of his curriculum. Many children also attend special classes to learn foreign languages such as French, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Russian or Japanese.
Experts believe children have the ability to learn more than one language at an early age. Parents should therefore not hesitate to encourage their children to pursue multilingualism. A baby's capacity for language learning is amazing in the first few months of life. She can actually distinguish between two sounds in any language in the world. Very soon she begins to zero in on the sounds she hears in her mother tongue. For example, a baby who is exposed to English in the first nine months of life can distinguish between the sounds 'r' and 'l'. However, a Japanese baby who has not been exposed to these sounds loses the ability to differentiate between them. So, an adult native Japanese speaker will often pronounce 'Ram' as 'Lam'.
Science journalist Lydia Denworth, in her book, I Can Hear You Whisper, discusses studies done by Dr Helen Neville at the University of Oregon on language and brain plasticity. These studies show that all languages acquired by a child before the age of seven are processed in the brain in a similar manner. Early exposure to language not only helps a child distinguish between different sounds within a language, it also helps a child easily grasp other nuances of a language such as grammar and sentence structure. It is more difficult to learn a language later and we generally end up having an accent.
In her article How Children Learn a Second Language, parenting expert Linda Halgunseth says, "There are many cognitive benefits for young children who are simultaneously (rather than sequentially) exposed to more than one language. For example, they have greater neural activity and denser tissue in the areas of the brain related to memory, attention and language than monolingual learners."
Deepa Sanghavi, who has taught French to children for over 12 years, explains why it is easy to teach children more languages when they are young. "Children are also less inhibited about practicing the new language. An adult may feel silly wishing someone 'Bonne Journee' ('Good day' in French), but a primary school student wouldn't. The younger the learner, the better he is at mimicking new sounds and getting the pronunciation right," she says.
When a baby is exposed to multiple languages simultaneously, there may be some speech delay. But this need not be a cause for concern. While learning a new language, a child often engages in 'code-switching' where he combines words from two different languages in the same sentence. This should not be viewed as a problem. It is actually the child's flexible cognitive style that allows for creative combinations of verbal expressions, explains psychologist and school counselor Sindhuja Manohar. For example, a toddler who is exposed to both Tamil and English may say, "Banana sapida (to eat) I want."
A study conducted by the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy measured brain sizes before and after a person learned a new language. Areas of the brain related to language and language acquisition showed significant growth for those who learned the new language. Sindhuja says, "Learning a new language sharpens the skills to switch multiple rules and combine different elements, which then leads to more flexibility in learning and cognitive processes." Based on our discussions with experts, here are some of the key benefits of multilingualism:
Better communication skills
Being multilingual does not cause communication disorders as was feared earlier. In fact, children who learn a new language develop greater sensitivity to language and a better ear for listening.
Better academic performance
Several studies show that multilingual children have superior cognitive ability and better concentration. They perform better on measures of analytical ability and concept formation. They are also more imaginative and better with abstract ideas. Getting familiarised with vocabulary and grammar rules strengthens a child's memory.
Learning a second language improves a child's cognitive skills and concentration
Studies published in the Annals of Neurology by the American Neurological Association show that learning a second or third language as a child, improves cognition later in life and delays the onset of dementia.
Learning multiple languages boosts a child's self-confidence while also aiding social assimilation. For instance, if a child moves to another state in India or another country, it is much easier if he already knows the local language or picks it up quickly.
Improved tolerance and better opportunities
Learning multiple languages helps a child develop a better understanding and respect for other cultures and ideologies. It also opens up opportunities to travel, study or work in other places.
The benefits of speaking multiple languages are many. In India, we are very fortunate to have many languages spoken around us. Encourage your child to learn new languages from friends and neighbors and open her ears to the wonders of new words.
Prutha Bhavsar, who is studying at National Law University, Visakhapatnam, feels learning French in school has given her a head start in college. Every student is required to learn a foreign language to gain international exposure. "I don't have the time or patience to start learning now. I am so glad I learned French as a child," she says. Of course, she did face problems while learning. One was the accent, which was very tough to perfect. The other was learning to think in French. "Thinking in English and translating the content into French just does not work," she stresses. Prutha is thankful to her school for organizing a French carnival where she got exposure to French culture - food and fashion, among other aspects.
Paresh Punjani, the course coordinator at Alliance Francaise, Ahmedabad, explains how French is taught at his institute.
"Language learning is a gradual process. The child should like the language and become acquainted with it over time. There are four skills involved in language learning - listening, speaking, reading and writing. There are three levels for children involving 80 hours of teaching. During the first two levels, we focus on speaking. At the end of these three levels, the child is quite proficient with the language and can pursue further studies in the adult batch."
"We teach children through activities such as role-play, singing French songs and showing cartoons and excerpts of French films. Our library has audiobooks and comics such as Asterix and Tintin in French that attract children. During the two-hour class, the instructor introduces a different activity every 20-25 minutes so that children do not get bored. Grammar is taught by getting children to express themselves and not by making them memorize rules."
Usha Vijaykumar, a Tamilian was born in Karnataka. When her father was transferred, she relocated to Hyderabad. In just a few years, she perfected four languages - English, Hindi, Telugu and Tamil apart from a basic understanding of Kannada. "When I got selected to work at Kendriya Vidyalaya, I was already in the zone. Being in a government job, I was often transferred. My strong understanding of Hindi really came in handy." Usha recognizes the importance of multilingualism. She is a strong advocate of the concept of professional success. "My daughters studied in Kendriya Vidyalaya and were exposed to people from all over the country. They too perfected multiple languages. Tomorrow, if they find work in places like Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata, they will easily be able to cope with the change," she adds.
Be proud of your mother tongue and teach it to your child. His ability to communicate in multiple languages may well take him further than anything else.