Your choice to expose your child to second-language education is a choice with lasting effects. Because learning a second language in childhood puts extra cognitive strain on the language centers of the brain, a child learning two languages at once will face different intellectual problems than monolingual children. Parents should learn about the possible negatives before they make an informed choice about whether send their children to foreign language studies.
Learning a new language puts extra cognitive strain on children. This strain affects children differently than would an extra math course in school. According to Psychology Professor Erika Hoff, author of the book “Language Development,” learning multiple languages simultaneously limits the number of words that a child can learn in a set amount of time. For example, toddlers have the cognitive capacity to learn approximately 20 new words a month, but this number is for total words. When a toddler’s language input comes in the form of two languages, she might only learn 10 words in her native language a month, learning the other 10 words in her foreign language, which puts her behind in her native language.
For many older adults, the choice to learn a foreign language is one of interest, for reasons of business or as per school requirements. But when children learn a foreign language, the reasoning tends to stem from a parent’s desire. Some parents wish their children to learn more about their origins, such as Hispanic American parents wanting their children to learn Spanish. Other parents wish to prepare their children for future opportunities, as is the case for many parents in China who send their children to English schools. Either way, due to the intimate link between language and culture, your child will get a taste of a foreign culture. This can result in cultural confusion in some cases, especially when a child is of a multi-ethnic background. For example, a Japanese child living in Hawaii might be surrounded by other Japanese Americans, attend Japanese school and even have Japanese extracurricular activities. The result of living in a Japanese community but still being American can cause a child to question his identity, especially in the teen years when self-identity becomes crucial and deeply linked with social circles.
Parents who wish to avoid subjecting their children to the native language learning delay that occurs when children learn a second language might decide to send their kid to foreign language classes only after she’s performing well in her native language courses. However, this leads to another problem: starting a child’s foreign language too late can result in an inability to completely master the new language. According to Hoff, areas in the brain dedicated to language have cut-off points for when they are receptive of new sounds. For this reason, children who start learning a new language in later years will always have a “foreign” accent, which can cause misunderstandings and impede future opportunities in using that language professionally. Hence, parents can be stuck between choosing to subject their children to a lessened language development or potentially permanent obstructions to language mastery.
Learning a foreign language is not all difficulties. Many of the problems associated with learning a second language either disappear or are minor for most purposes. For example, the language learning delay that causes a child to be weaker in both his native and second language dissipates as she approaches her preteens. The foreign accent that characterizes a child who begins learning his second language in late childhood does not bar him from working as a translator or integrating into a new culture; accent training can help older children lessen the severity of their accents. In addition, learning a foreign language brings children more cognitive challenges that result in better skills. For example, the addition of a new grammar predisposes children to seeking out rules, making them stronger in logic and math. Additionally, the learned ability of switching from one language to another helps children build concentration skills. Overall, learning a foreign language isn’t a disadvantage but a set of trade-offs with both good and bad.
- "Language Development"; Erika Hoff; 1997
- "Bilingualism: Challenges and Directions for Future Research"; J. M. DeWaele, et. al.; 2002
- "Cognitive Development and the Acquisition of Language"; Timothy Moore; 1973
- GOV.UK: Investigating the Role of Language in Children’s Early Educational Outcomes
- University of Oregon: Key Points about the Benefits of Foreign Language Learning To Include in Letters to Legislators
- Advantages and Disadvantages that Kids Have at the Time They Are Learning English as a Foreign Language to Become Bilingual; Cordova, Cordova
- Jupiterimages/Pixland/Getty Images