The brain-growing magic of foreign languages
... and six ways you can expose your kids early!
Kids who learn more than one language do better in other subjects like reading and science, score higher on standardized tests, and exhibit better problem-solving and spatial abilities. There’s even evidence that second-language acquisition changes the brain’s anatomy and adds gray matter.
By Carol Lloyd
“I’m so atrocious at languages,” my Czech artist friend moans with her characteristic Slavic purr. “It vas always so harrrrd for me in school.”
I can’t help but roll my eyes. I consider myself a crackerjack study when it comes to foreign tongues because I can chat about politics in Mexico City, order multi-course meals in Paris, and bludgeon a greeting in Moscow. But my friend’s “atrocious” language skills dwarf mine as well as those of almost every American I know. In addition to Czech and English fluency, she speaks Russian, Italian, and German with proficiency.
The difference between us, aside from my windy American self-confidence and her Eastern European self-deprecation? Something more prosaic: She was educated in the “old country,” where despite Eastern bloc hardships like rancid meat, second-language instruction began in kindergarten, adding a third and fourth language later on. I, in turn, was educated in some of the best public schools our country had to offer, which meant starting French in sixth grade, then toiling in misery until my senior year. It was only when I got to college (and other countries) that I escaped the tedium of textbooks and low expectations.
Crazy findings from language laboratories
Whatever the reason behind our national reluctance toward foreign languages, it’s worth rethinking. Why? Because decades of research (for an extensive list of studies, go here) suggest that kids who learn more than one language get broad cognitive benefits. Not only do they do better in other subjects like reading and science, but they also score higher on standardized tests and exhibit better problem-solving and spatial abilities. If that’s not enough, research suggests second-language acquisition may even ward off senility and extend life. Finally, God forbid, if you should ever suffer brain damage to the hemisphere where your primary language abilities reside, you may be able to draw from your alternate language skills (which occupy a different region). There’s even evidence that second-language acquisition changes the brain’s anatomy and adds gray matter.
Why not simply learn a foreign language later on, in middle or high school or even college? Because for most of us, that’s not how it works. Studies show the earlier a child is exposed to a second language, the greater likelihood he or she will gain proficiency.
But don’t fret! Though our education system may underestimate the importance of chattin' up fern'ers, parents can expose children to another language during their early years. Our list of products, tips, and tricks to delight your children with the otherworldly pleasures of speaking in (foreign) tongues is a great place to start.