Why raising bilingual kids will give them a better start in the future
“Meet the Australian children fluent in Mandarin” was the recent headline of a BBC story written by Jon Donnison in Melbourne. He visited one of the country’s few bilingual schools, which has a very successful program teaching four- and five year- olds in Mandarin (and also Vietnamese, which it wants to expand.)
In the article he wrote, “Sitting crosslegged on the floor of her classroom, chewing on the end of her pen, five-year-old Jackie Baldwin is deep in thought. Blonde haired, with pink spectacles balanced on the tip of her nose, her hand begins to move steadily and confidently across her page, leaving a neat line of Chinese characters.”
As he looked over little Jackie’s shoulder, he noticed the letters “BBC.” She looked up at him and translated, “Today the BBC is visiting our school!” She is studying in a bilingual English and Chinese immersion program at Richmond West Primary School in Melbourne. There are 23 children in this class and Jackie has been learning Mandarin for less than a year. She confidently communicates with her classmates in both Mandarin and English. Jackie and her classmates are learning Chinese through total immersion twice a week.
“The younger they start learning Chinese as a second language, the easier it is for them to learn,” said Kim Lim, the children’s Mandarin teacher who has been at the school for almost 20 years. “They are like sponges, socially and mentally they just easily absorb things. Learning a second language comes naturally.”
I later learned that the school is statefunded, and is located in an average income neighborhood with children from over 23 nations.
“Asian languages are taught in many primary schools but only for half an hour or so a week, which is nowhere near enough to get a proper grasp of a language. It means when children move on to high school, there are very high dropout rates for Asian language classes because many simply feel they have not progressed or it is too difficult. The dropout rate at high school for Chinese language classes is around 95 percent,” explained Dr. Jane Orton, an education pundit based in Melbourne.
Then just last month I came across this story in The Economist: “This weekend Johnson enjoyed an American holiday in Berlin: the children’s Halloween party held by neighbors; a half German, half American couple. Besides mermaid tails, ladybug antennas or monster horns, nearly every one of the nippers at the party had another accessory: a second language.”
Johnson’s dad goes on to say that his “nipper is still pre-verbal at nearly 18 months, meaning that every request not immediately understood and satisfied may quickly turn into a piercing shriek. But we take comfort that Johnson Junior is cognitively just fine. If his language comes a little late, that is probably because, for one thing, he is male, and for another, he is surrounded every day by three languages: English and Danish at home, and German all day at nursery. More confusingly still, the three languages are closely related: is it bread, brot or brød? Apple, apfel or æble? House, haus or hus? The earthy words in English are mostly Germanic, meaning these triplets are coming up in his world all the time.”
His child’s challenging tri-lingual language immersion is also common here in Vietnam where daddy is from one country (usually Western), Mommy is from another country (usually Asian) and the caregiver is generally from Vietnam. Children exposed to multiple languages often exhibit similar results – initially they mingle languages, or use syntax of one language and the words of another. But Johnson says “these problems disappear quickly. By three or four, children reliably separate the languages, knowing which can be spoken with whom. Their fluency in each would be the envy of any adult language learner.”
Often parents ask me if a second (or third) language would confuse the child. Even the Vietnamese government (not the education department) is on record as suggesting that second language acquisition be delayed until at least five years old. The premise is that it would interfere with developing the ‘Vietnamese-ness’ of the child. Johnson goes on to report that such beliefs are woefully out of date today. In short, there is little evidence that raising a bilingual child will hurt their primary language.
The benefits, by contrast, are both strong and long-lasting. Bilingual children as young as seven months outperform monolinguals at tasks requiring “executive function” such as prioritizing and planning complex tasks and switching mental gears. This is probably because monitoring the use of two languages is itself an exercise in executive function. The same beneficial effects have been shown in bilingual children of poor families.
Recent studies clearly prove that children raised with multiple dialects spoken by natives will become fluent in all. These studies use a type of MRI with children as young as six months old.
The final quote from Johnson makes an excellent case: “The earlier children begin the second language, the better they will learn it. Norway has already introduced English in the first year of school, and Denmark is soon to do so. These countries, unlike France, Germany or Spain, have very small languages of their own, so they know language ability is crucial to their future competitiveness. Talk about the ‘need factor.’”
Bio: Lauralynn Goetz, B.A., M.M.Ed. US, is the director of an early childhood education center in Vietnam