Did you know that many children of first-generation immigrants in the west are bilingual to some degree? Without even knowing it, we have been learning multiple languages at a young age.
Growing up in North America, most of us have adopted English as our primary language. It has become so easy to forego the use of our native language. As a result, our language abilities have started coinciding with western norms (English, French, and Spanish) instead of our mother tongue (Urdu, Arabic, Farsi, or Swahili).
According to a 2018 study, approximately 20.55% of people within the United States are bilingual. While this percentage has doubled since the 1980s, it is still significantly lower than other multilingual countries. For example, 42% of Switzerland’s population uses two or more languages daily.
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This post is all about the benefits of learning multiple languages at a young age.
In this post, I will cover the following:
- My experience with language learning
- Top 6 benefits of learning multiple languages
- Top 4 benefits of learning multiple languages at a young age
- Addressing the myth about learning delays
- 7 ways to integrate learning multiple languages at home
I was born to Pakistani-born parents. They were among the first Pakistanis to immigrate to the west hoping to provide a better life for their children. Growing up in the west, my parents tried hard to ensure that my siblings and I learned Urdu fluently, even though everything around us was English dominant. Our schools, friends, neighborhoods, and stores spoke English, so we learned our Urdu language skills at home. My parents made many sacrifices to ensure we didn’t lose our mother tongue.
I grew up learning Urdu and English fluently. As I grew older, I learned to read and write Arabic within 20 days. In my 20s, I learned to be fluent in French (reading, writing, and oral) after six months of dedicated effort. Every individual is different, but I feel that exposure to multiple languages at a young age was advantageous for me as I continued to learn more languages later.
Now, with three children, I have a goal. I won’t let my Urdu language skills end with me. At times, it feels as if the odds are against me. I live in a rural town with no ethnic folks around. Most children’s toys and activities are only available in the English language. I have been working diligently to raise my children to speak Urdu as their first language.
This has not been a walk in the park by any means. Although I am fluent in Urdu, English is still my dominant language. My husband and I speak to each other in English. We have had to consciously re-wire ourselves only to speak Urdu to our children. At first, we had no idea if this would work. Growing up, my parents talked to each other and us in Urdu, so we were truly immersed. In my current home, we only speak to the kids in Urdu.
To my surprise, my children speak Urdu fluently. It takes creativity, patience, and repetition, but it is doable. I am proof of that!
Some people question my choice to teach my children Urdu as their first language. Some don’t see the value, and others think it’s too much work. But to us, it’s about the investment. It might not be noticeable right away, but I am confident that raising bilingual children will pay off at some point later in life. It did for me, and I’m sure it will for you too! Keep reading and I’ll tell you why.
Top 6 Benefits of Learning Multiple Languages:
1. Better Understanding of Languages and Their Functions:
Multilingual people tend to understand grammar, conjugations, and sentence structure better than monolingual individuals. They communicate more effectively, become better editors, and even more compelling writers because they understand the function of language. Multilingual individuals can also pick up on the formation of language and understand how to use these concepts effectively. This means they can learn more languages easier.
2. Delayed Mental Decline:
Studies found that the more elderly individuals use cognitive energy, the less cognitive decline they experience overall. Some studies have shown that being bilingual can slow down the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by five years on average. Statistics also show that bilingual seniors who develop Alzheimer’s exhibit less decay in their cognitive abilities than monolingual seniors.
3. Better Executive Function:
An executive function is the set of critical mental skills that allow us to set goals and get things done. It is responsible for skills such as paying attention, organization, planning, focus, regulating emotions, and keeping track of tasks. These skills develop from childhood into the mid-20s, but there are ways to build them better. Being bilingual or multilingual means that you are constantly switching between languages, sometimes even unconsciously. Because of this, some studies demonstrate that multilingual individuals have better developed executive functions.
4. Better Problem-Solving Skills:
Learning a new language means that you can express the same thought in multiple ways, which improves cognitive flexibility. This encourages bilinguals to be more creative or better problem solvers. Multilingual people often creatively solve complex problems in more ways than monolingual individuals.
5. Better Learning Capacity:
Since bilingual and multilingual people have a more developed executive function, which I discussed above, they can discard irrelevant or otherwise unimportant stimulants and focus on the required stimuli – also known as inhibition. Inhibition is significant when we learn new skills, including language. It allows us to focus on new information and reduces excess noise from information that you may already know. Thus, because multilingual individuals have heightened inhibition, it is easier for them to learn more languages faster than monolingual individuals.
6. More Awareness of Social Environments:
Multilingual people tend to be better observers. They can quickly identify misleading information because of their elevated executive function. This can allow them to focus on essential and relevant information rather than all the ‘fluff’ that comes with it. Individuals might even be more critical and discerning when it comes to their cultural social environments.
Top 4 Benefits of Learning Languages at a Young Age:
Aside from the cognitive benefits, below is why learning languages at a young age is beneficial.
1. Native-Like Proficiency:
Studies show that when children learn languages before the age of 5, they are more likely to reach native proficiency.
2. Develops a Deeper Connection:
When a child knows a language from a young age, it allows them to grow into the language’s culture, creating a deeper connection with their roots as they get older.
3. Better Academic Achievement:
Generally speaking, multilingual children tend to have better reading, writing, and math skills than monolingual children. They also tend to score higher on standardized tests.
4. Increased Cultural Sensitivity, Empathy, and Tolerance:
When we expose children to languages at an early age, they tend to have more positive attitudes and sensitivities toward the cultures associated with those languages. They are introduced to a world of understanding that they would have otherwise not known or experienced.
Does learning multiple languages delay a child’s understanding of one or all languages?
Many people have asked me this question when they learn that I am teaching my children my native language before English.
According to speech pathologists, it has been a longstanding myth within the United States that learning two or more languages at a young age can cause confusion or language delay. Research on this topic (including some of the benefits I listed above) has debunked this myth. Children can learn two or more languages at the same pace as a child who is learning only one language.
7 Ways to Integrate Learning More Than One Language at Home:
Here are seven things I do that have helped me incorporate bilingualism within my home and may be practical and helpful for you:
1. Speak the language:
My husband and I only speak to the kids in Urdu. We also talk to our parents in Urdu, and we ask our entire family to talk to our children in Urdu. We do this because we want the children first to learn Urdu, then English.
Note: We did not introduce English to the children until they turned 2. Everything was Urdu-based until the age of 2, except for common words such as: thank you, yes, no, okay, hello, bye-bye. When the children could recite the Urdu alphabet and elected to speak to us in Urdu comfortably, we introduced English. Since my husband and I talk to each other in English, this language was not foreign to the children, and they quickly caught on. Even though we have introduced English to the children, we continue to speak conversationally with the children in only Urdu.
Practice makes perfect. This is true for children as well. We repeat the same concepts and eventually when our child is ready, they start to use the desired words in their vocabulary. Sometimes this means saying the Urdu alphabet repeatedly or modeling the correct sentences to hear the difference in what they said versus what I said. This can take a while, but it yields results.
3. Read Books:
We read a lot of books. Before the age of 2, we read all books in Urdu. We have many English books, but we translate them ourselves for the children. As we introduce English into the children’s vocabulary, we read the same text in both languages. This allows the children to understand the same storyline in two languages.
4. Play Games:
I can’t tell you how many games and activities I have had to translate into the Urdu language. “What time is it, Mr. Wolf?” became, “Behri, Behri, Kya Waqt Horaha hai?” and, “Simon Says” became, “Ammi ne kaha,” and the list goes on. Kids love interactive play, especially with their parents. This is where you get creative and put your language skills to the test. It’s a fantastic way to help kids catch on to language quickly.
5. Song and Melody:
I am very critical of the Urdu language nursery rhymes out there. I’ve found that many have negative connotations that I don’t want to expose my children to at such a young age. My solution: I re-make the nurseries and add in my own “mom-approved” words. It works! I sometimes make up my own Urdu songs that the children then memorize because they’re catchy.
6. Visual Aids:
We keep the Urdu alphabet and animal names, numbers, fruits, and vegetables in both languages in sight at all times. The children subconsciously and consciously interact with these visual aids multiple times throughout the day. This is precisely how my children learned the names (in both languages) of all these things. We didn’t force it—it was part of the environment that fostered self-learning.
7. Use Online Resources to Supplement Person-to-Person Learning:
We let the children watch approved Urdu Youtube Channels and invest in Dinolingo – a language learning program for children. This is the type of screen time we encourage in our home. The children have daily exposure to Dinolingo every morning when their brains are most alert, allowing them to process the information throughout the day. They often randomly share with us the stories they watch or new words they learn from the lessons. Dinolingo has 50 languages and is recommended for children between the ages of 2 and 12. It’s an excellent resource if you want to introduce another language to your children down the road. All 50 languages are available to you when you sign up, including Arabic, Gujarati, Swahili, Turkish, and Persian, to name a few.
A thing to note about the Urdu language in Dinolingo is that it is about 95% accurate. Some words seem to be in the Hindi language (or a similar language), and I usually model the correct words with my children if they start using those words. It’s not the end of the world, but worth mentioning.
Overall, Dinolingo has been an excellent tool for my children. I’ve partnered up with Dinolingo, and now, you can receive 25% off any subscription by entering the code: SABAHSCORNER.
This information may seem like a lot to obtain proficiency in more than one language, but it’s more about creating a way of life than marking off a checklist. The goal is to set our children up for success! However, I will say that if you have parents who rely on their native tongue to communicate effectively, it is remarkable to watch your children speak to their grandparents in their native language. Grandparents have a sense of comfort with their native tongue and express their emotions in greater detail. This increases meaningful dialogue between grandchild and grandparent.
I encourage you to incorporate your native tongue in some capacity with your children so that your language, too, doesn’t end with you.
This post is all about the benefits of learning multiple languages at a young age.
How do you feel about raising bilingual children in the west?
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Lead with Languages. “Why Learn Languages.” Lead with Languages, Lead with Languages, 2020, www.leadwithlanguages.org/why-learn-languages/early-childhood-elementary.
Lang, Susan S. “Learning a Second Language Is Good Childhood Mind Medicine, Studies Find.” Cornell Chronicle, Cornell Chronicle, 12 May 2009, news.cornell.edu/stories/2009/05/learning-second-language-good-childhood-mind-medicine.
700 Children’s. “Teaching Kids a Second Language: Can It Cause a Speech Delay?” Nationwide Children’s, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, 14 Dec. 2017, www.nationwidechildrens.org/family-resources-education/700childrens/2017/12/teaching-kids-a-second-language-can-it-cause-a-speech-delay#:~:text=The%20idea%20that%20two%20languages,are%20learning%20only%20one%20language.
Healthwise Staff. “Speech and Language Delays: Common Misconceptions.” C.C. Mott Children’s Hospital Michigan Medicine, Healthwise, 27 May 2020, www.mottchildren.org/health-library/ue5605.
Grosjean, Francois. “The Amazing Rise of Bilingualism in the United States.” Psychology Today, Psychology Today, 11 Sept. 2018, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/life-bilingual/201809/the-amazing-rise-bilingualism-in-the-united-states.
Eisenchlas, Susana and Schalley, Andrea. “Raising Multilingual and Bilingual Children: Options.” Raisingchildren.Net.Au, Rising Children Network Limited, raisingchildren.net.au/babies/connecting-communicating/bilingualism-multilingualism/raising-bilingual-children-tips. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.
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