Newborn babies are primed to hear and distinguish every sound in every language. But this auditory elasticity diminishes over time. So if you want your child to be competent in a second language, early exposure is key. Some children are fortunate enough to have two or more languages at home. But if you and your partner speak the same native language, you could play nursery rhymes in a second language or hire a nanny/babysitter who speaks it.
Research has shown that children can learn to speak a second language without accent and with fluent grammar until the age of about 7 or 8. After this time, performance declines, even with regular practice and exposure to language.* In order to take advantage of the so-called ‘critical stage’ in your child’s development, try to ensure regular interaction with a native speaker. That way your child will learn to communicate authentically. At an institution such as the French Institute (in Edinburgh), all classes (for children aged 3+) are led by native speakers.
Being a linguist is not simply about having a facility with languages: it’s about loving language (in general) and the way it works. So do surround your child with enjoyable (audio and print) story books, poems, nursery rhymes and sound/word games. The more pleasure they get interacting with and embodying language, the better. Older children are especially drawn to the absurd. So why not inspire them with well-written nonsense by the likes of Spike Milligan, Michael Rosen and Edward Lear. For a linguist, language is a creative tool; these writers all demonstrate that.
Find opportunities for your child to experience other cultures.
Particularly by socialising with other children of their own age. A good linguist uses foreign codes and conventions to aid communication. You might decide to send your child to a bilingual school or a specialist nursery. Or else, join a parent group or foreign-language story-time at a local library. There will also be language-focused holiday clubs, pen-pal opportunities and foreign exchanges. Not to mention those inevitable opportunities to try out language skills on holiday. It’s important for budding linguists to experience the joy of communication in a meaningful, real-life context.
Why not harness the benefits of audio and audiovisual media?
Cartoons, stories and songs are hugely motivating because they’re enjoyable. They also present language in context, often with visuals, which aid learning. You could google a foreign-language alternative to ‘Peppa Pig’ or ‘The Beano’ for example? Or ask a teacher/native speaker for age-appropriate recommendations. Like cartoons, children’s songs (such as nursery rhymes) have the educational advantage of being repetitive and therefore catchy. Thus the child copies and internalises the rhythm, stress and intonation of the target language.
* Neuroscience (1997) ed. by Purves et al.
Feature Writer @Edinburgh Nursery & School Guide
& Freelance Writer lauravidaorg.wordpress.com