During the first years of a child’s life the foundations for learning, thinking and other cognitive processes are laid down. These early years are when our brains have the most plasticity and the highest numbers of connections between neurons. There is so much potential to learn and it’s incredible to watch babies and toddlers as they seem to develop right in front of your eyes!
When a baby begins to babble they produce the sounds that are the foundations for all human language. Their surrounding environments, and the words that they hear from those around them, form the basis of their linguistic abilities and which languages they will be able to speak. Infants are able to incorporate characteristics of a second language into their babbling after as little as 5 hours of exposure. Research has demonstrated that children exposed to more than one language reap multiple cognitive benefits, such as problem-solving and communication ability as well as creativity and cultural awareness.
Early second language acquisition has actually been show to increase performance in children’s’ native language, rather than hinder it as misconceptions suggest. The pathways built in the brain when learning a foreign language at an early age can also make it easier for learning even more languages later in life and open them up to a world of opportunities.
It is evident that exposure to foreign languages is extremely beneficial, but how can this be achieved? As parents there are many ways you can help, such as by introducing children to other languages from a young age. This can be done through exposure to people that speak a non-native language and even bilingual toys and TV shows. In a childcare setting, we are lucky enough to have the Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA) Program, which has recently received extra funding, expanding play-based language learning to 7500 Australian Preschools.
Having worked at a bilingual early education centre I’ve witnessed the fantastic educators using song, dance, stories and games to introduce vocabulary to children in two different languages. The children love the sense of accomplishment and exploring new words and we are helping to set them up to reach their potential!