We have friends whose kids respond to us in English, to each other in Dutch and to their father’s soccer sideline screams in exasperated Italian. We have other friends whose kids go to regular public school during the week, then to Russian or Chinese school on the weekends.
Do these multilingual kids have an advantage over their monolingual peers? The short answer—yes. Boaz Keysar, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and coauthor of a 2015 study on early language exposure, says the most important thing a second language gives kids is perhaps the most obvious: the ability to communicate with more people. “But we also find being exposed to more than one language makes people better at understanding [alternate] perspective[s],” says Keysar. “Other research shows that by using two languages, children develop better executive functions, [allowing them] to easily focus on what’s important and screen out peripheral information,” which basically means they have better focus.
Knowing another language also improves problem-solving and critical thinking skills, says Nancy Kulfas-Perri, manager of Berlitz Learning Center in Summit. “Kids achieve higher scores on standardized tests and have greater mental flexibility,” she says.
The list of benefits goes on and on. A 2005 University of Chicago study showed kids who were around people (parents, grandparents, peers) speaking something other than their native language grew up to be better communicators than those who weren’t.
WHICH LANGUAGE IS BEST?
If there’s no obvious heritage or nationality that points your family in a particular direction, some languages may have advantages over others. “In New Jersey, learning Spanish is recommended because of the percentage of Spanish speakers in the area and the US,” says Kulfas-Perri. But if your kid knows what career he or she might want to pursue down the line, think about which language might help most. Or, key off a passion—a kid who’s really into manga and anime might love learning Japanese, she says.
WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO LEARN?
Immersion, immersion, immersion, experts say. “My children are fully bilingual because we maximized the variety of exposures,” says Keysar. “I speak to them in Hebrew exclusively, they watched videos dubbed in Hebrew, spent summers in Israel and went to a Jewish school where Hebrew was valued and they learned to read and write it.”
If kids are primarily learning in a classroom (preferably with a native speaker), any additional exposure will help. “Watching age-appropriate videos on the Internet or TV, listening to podcasts, singing songs as a daily routine for the younger ones, coloring activities and games [and] apps all help,” says Kulfas-Perri. Babysitters or family members who speak the language are great aids, too.
WHEN SHOULD THEY START?
Though there’s never a “too late,” younger is always better— especially if the goal is to speak with a native accent. But there are plenty of benefits to learning as an older kid, says Kulfas-Perri. “Even learning a foreign language as an adult slows down cognitive decline and can prevent Alzheimer’s,” she says.
As your kids learn, have realistic expectations and follow their progress. Above all, make sure they’re having fun! Find a restaurant that uses your mini speaker’s language and let her order. Experts agree that, like anything worth doing, your kids will become fluent faster and have better language retention and pronunciation if they’re enjoying the journey.
—Liz Zack is a writer, editor and content strategist. She lives in South Orange with her husband and two kids.