I’d like to discuss language development in children and how kids can easily learn a second, third – even fourth language.
Now children are absolutely amazing; they are limited only by what we can present to them in a systematic manner. In fact, if we could systematically present 20 languages to them, they would learn 20 languages – because the brain is unlimited in its capacity. And while that would be a very rare extreme, still there are many situations in which children have to deal with three or four languages at once.
So in order to ensure that your child has the best possible chance of learning these languages, there are several crucial elements to have in mind. And the first one is that it is never, ever too early to start.
The Earlier the Better
I’m absolutely horrified when I hear parents say, “But why speak to him, if he can’t speak back yet?”
Well he’s never going to speak if you don’t speak to him first! Children won’t learn to speak through osmosis, or out of the air. It’s not mysticism; it’s pure, practical science. Input equals output, and you must speak to your child if you want him or her to develop their language skills.
There is actually a great deal of research to support this. In fact, we know today that children actually start learning language in the womb.
Now, the next question I hear a lot is: “How should I speak to my child?”
Motherese and Language Plus One
Happily, you probably already know the answer to this question – for two amazing language-related phenomena happen to a new mother upon the birth of her child.
The first phenomenon is that she suddenly develops the miraculous ability to speak ‘Motherese.’ This language has several elements: It is slightly slower than normal speech, and it has a higher pitch and different intonation. Certain words are emphasized and vocabulary is simplified. It’s all automatic and instinctive, and helps the child to learn. It’s actually not limited to mothers: Fathers, siblings and grandparents also find themselves speaking this new language naturally and with ease.
The second phenomenon is that parents have the instinctive knowledge that in order to develop their child’s language abilities, they must present her with what she understands plus one level above. If you speak to children using only words and concepts they understand, they won’t progress. So “Language Plus One” is an instinctive and crucial part of language learning. And finally, we come to:
Read, Read, Read
Just go out and fill your home with books – there is a wealth of fantastic material you can read to young children and it is one of the best ways for them to pick up the language.
And don’t worry about what they do or don’t understand. Knowledge is gained gradually, and what they can’t grasp the first week, they will the next. This will develop their linguistic understanding, their patience for longer texts, and other capacities as well.
Again, it’s best to start as early as possible, because you want their reading comprehension to remain synchronized with their cognitive skills, otherwise the material for their age will be too advanced, and the material they are able to read will be too childish for them.
Children need systematic exposure to a language – mother tongue or foreign – if they are to develop the ability to understand and speak it.
So if you want your child to learn English, try to start at birth, or at least during the first year. If you’ve missed that initial window, then try to start during the first two years; the earlier the better. Put your child in a fun, nurturing, diverse environment that will help them to learn the language in a natural, systematic way.
And – super important – if they are learning English with the Helen Doron methodology, don’t just leave it to the school and teacher. Do whatever you can to support it at home. If your English is good enough, read to them. And when they are at home, and hear you speak words they’ve already learned in class, this will strengthen their skills to no end.
Next post, we’ll further explore some components crucial to children’s language development – including the parent-child connection.