Child Development Available research shows that there are many more bilingual or multilingual people in the world than monolingual. About 6000 languages are estimated to be spoken worldwide, many of these as second, third or even fourth languages. Multi language proficiency is not only possible, but greatly valued by educators, policy makers and parents in many countries.
Growing up with multiple languages is the easiest, fastest and most effortless way to learn a foreign language. When exactly is the best time in your child's development to introduce an additional language? The sooner, the better. The older the child, the more difficult it is and less likely it becomes to learn a new language.
Why is it more challenging for adults or even teenagers to acquire a new language? The answer lies in brain development.
have three advantages: pure mental computation (number of synapses), brain plasticity and sound perception.
When a child is born, billions of brain cells, called neurons, begin to connect to help a child build a useful brain. These connections are called synapses. They increase rapidly and brain metabolism reaches adult levels at around ten months and then rapidly exceeds it. Therefore a two year old child has 50% more synapses than an adult. The network of connections influences intellectual capacity, memory, problem solving, and language and during these first few years the brain has the greatest hope for growth and construction. This growth levels off, and once it does brain functionality will have been formed by the early experiences.
Brain plasticity refers to the brain's ability to adapt to new experiences. Children acquire language the best before the age of 5. This is because the brain’s plasticity, or ability to be flexible, is strongest during this stage of development.
With regards to sound perception, children are much more perceptive than adults. Individual sound elements are called 'phonemes' and scientific studies have proven that children are better at detecting sounds and hearing the nuances in foreign languages. As adults our brains discard sounds that are useless in our native language and when we are introduced to new sounds in a foreign language later on in life, we can't hear the difference. Imitation then becomes much more difficult.
All babies are born with an innate ability to learn languages, but when processing two or more languages simultaneously there is a three to six month delay compared to monolingual children. This being said, by four years of age, this gap has disappeared and children are well on their way to being multilingual.
Despite the proof that infants and children have the ability to process and learn more than one language there are opponents to the idea of multilingualism. Although cons to raising multilingual children exist most of the ideas proposed by opponents are simply misconceptions. It is not true that children become confused by more than one language: there are countries where multilingualism is the norm (eg. Canada, Belgium, Switzerland). Some mixing between the languages will occur at first, but this stops as vocabulary in each language increases. It is not true that multilingual children can't be literate in all of their languages, in fact they have a better linguistic understanding than their peers. Opponents say that multilingualism is uncommon, but estimates suggest that 75% of the world's population speaks more than one language.
What are the benefits then of raising children to communicate multilingually? Of course bilingual or multilingual children have an easier time at school when is it obligatory to learn a second language, and should they want to learn yet another language when they are older, they have a head start. In time to come they will have job and life experiences that are simply not available to monolingual speakers. But more than that, it has been proven that multilingual children tend to have better analytical, social and academic skills than monolingual children. They develop into more flexible learners and possess a cognitive edge in comparison to their peers. Being multilingual can improve a child's self-esteem and confidence.
In my opinion the greatest benefit lies in the fact that raising a multilingual child means raising an open minded child. Multilingual children develop an appreciation of different cultures and possess an innate acceptance of cultural differences. In the process of learning languages they learn tolerance and understanding and this is perhaps the most beautiful gift that parents can bestow upon their children.