By IT’S July in collaboration with Sara Righetti (Simply Our Child)
Raising a child to be bilingual or multilingual is a gift that can greatly enhance their cognitive abilities and open up a world of opportunities for them. It does not come without challenges though and as an expat parent or international family you may be wondering how to best support your child in learning multiple languages and what it takes to help your child thrive in a multilingual environment. Are you ready to learn more about the potential of a multilingual mind? Let’s dive into this!
Understanding the Neuroscience behind Multilingualism
The human brain is incredibly adaptable and capable of learning multiple languages.
From birth to age three, the brain is in a critical period of development known as the “sensitive period” for language acquisition. During this time, the brain is able to effortlessly absorb multiple languages, rapidly develop new neural connections and form new synapses. This process is known as spontaneous language acquisition and it is driven by the child's innate ability to process and understand the sounds, grammar, and meaning of the language(s) spoken around them. The child is actively listening, observing and trying to make sense of the language, without any conscious effort or formal instruction. This is the most beneficial period to introduce new languages.
After the age of three, the process of learning a language becomes more energy-intensive, as the brain must actively process and encode new information. It takes more effort for our brain to learn a new language as opposed to spontaneously acquiring it. The earlier a child starts learning a new language, the easier it will be for them to learn additional languages in the future; and the more languages we know the easier it is to learn another one.
Benefits & Challenges of Multilingualism in Children
Children who can speak multiple languages have a wealth of benefits at their disposal. Research has shown that multilingual children have increased cognitive abilities, including enhanced memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. Overall, they tend to perform better academically.
Multilingual children also have a greater cultural awareness, providing them with a range of opportunities in terms of travel, education, and career. Being able to successfully communicate and connect with a diverse group of people equips them with strong skills to thrive in a globalized economy. Switching between languages can give children a sense of flexibility and adaptability, which can be beneficial as they navigate the complexities of the world and develop a more inclusive worldview.
Great, so the benefits are compelling, but what can be difficult about multilingualism in children?
One potential issue is that parents may struggle to find adequate resources and support for their child's language learning, particularly if they are living in a monolingual community. Multilingual children may even face discrimination and bias from individuals who do not understand or value multilingualism.
In daily life, multilingual children may experience language confusion as they alternate between languages - known as "code-switching". This is completely normal and can be beneficial for their cognitive development, but it can also be difficult for parents and teachers, who may not understand what the child is saying. While it is a widely spread belief among parents that children who are exposed to multiple languages may take slightly longer to develop their first words and phrases compared to monolingual children, the research on this subject is mixed. The impact of multilingualism on speaking development can depend on many factors, such as the child's age when they are first exposed to the languages, the amount of exposure to each language, and the quality of the input they receive.
While speaking multiple languages as a child helps broaden their horizon, it may also create a struggle with feeling fully accepted in one culture or language community. If a child is not exposed to one of their languages regularly, they may experience language loss, which can lead to feelings of loss of cultural identity.
Tips to boost your child’s multilingualism
As a parent, there are many ways you can support your child's bi-/multilingualism and help unfold the potential:
Create a supportive and nurturing learning environment to boost your child’s self-esteem and confidence when using a language
Speak to your child in your native language(s) as much as possible. Be consistent in your language use with your child, even if they don't respond at first.
Create opportunities and encourage your child to speak their language(s) with other native speakers, whether it is family members, friends, language classes or language exchange partners.
Connect and meet with other families that speak the same language(s) and create meaningful moments together through fun activities and shared interests
Provide your child with age-appropriate language learning resources, such as books, videos, and apps.
Find ways to make the language fun and engaging for your child. Incorporate games, songs, or stories in the language. Watching TV shows and movies is also an entertaining way of getting language exposure.
Help your child understand the value and benefits of being multilingual, and celebrate their achievements in learning new languages.
As parents, be aware of and help your child navigate any negative experiences such as discrimination or bias.
And what if your child refuses to speak a language?
Be gentle and understanding. It is crucial to approach the situation with patience and not to pressure your child into speaking a certain language. Each child has their own unique pace and method of learning. As a parent, it is important to recognize and praise your child's efforts to speak the language, even if they make mistakes. Be their biggest fan and supporter. This positive reinforcement will boost their confidence and motivation to continue using the language.
If you are going through an international relocation as a family it is advisable to enroll your child into language classes for the new language prior to the move. Starting their language acquisition with a positive experience will give them a head start and can help to prevent any negative emotions that may arise during the transition, and that would lead to a resistance to the new language otherwise.
If the situation persists or the child is suffering from the situation it may be helpful to investigate the root cause of the issue, as your child may be experiencing difficulties that are not immediately apparent. In such cases, seeking the guidance of a professional, such as a language therapist or teacher can be extremely beneficial as they can work with your child to address specific language skills.
Most importantly: Trust in your child - the journey may be long and challenging, but the benefits will last forever. Lead by example and begin learning this new language skill today!
Want to find other families nearby that share your language(s)? Join IT'S July!
This article was created in collaboration with Sara Righetti, a bilingual mum, professional early childhood educator and cognitive scientist. Sara runs Simply Our Child, a family consulting practice in Milan/ Italy and helps families navigate the challenges of multilingualism, international relocation, emotional fragility and other related topics.