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The Benefits of Learning a Second Language as a Child

1. Brain structure facilitates second language-learning

On a biological level, children are like sponges. The brain of a child is designed to absorb new information unconsciously. They do this similarly to the way that we, as adults, unconsciously learn song lyrics, rhythms, and melodies. 

Dr. Paul Thompson, a neurology professor at UCLA, and his team found that the brain systems specialized in learning new languages grow rapidly from around six years old until puberty. Then these systems basically shut down and stop growing from ages 11 to 15, during puberty.


2. Baby brains have special skills for second language-learning

In a TED Talk, Patricia Kuhl explains how babies listen to the sounds around them and “take statistics” on the sounds they need to know. Before the age of 10–12 months, babies can differentiate between all sounds across all languages. Then, according to their exposure to languages, they start to only differentiate between the language sounds which are necessary to create meaning.

For example,  the Japanese language does not differentiate between the l and the r sounds. Japanese babies before 10 months old, can hear the difference between these sounds. Then, between 10 and 12 months old, they lose their capacity to differentiate.

Are you wondering if babies can learn a new language with audio or on a screen or tablet? Or do they need real human interaction to absorb a new language? Skip to minute 7:05 of this video to find out.

TED Talk with Dr. Patricia Kuhl

3. Children have less to learn than adults

Another one of the benefits of learning a second language at an early age is that children think more simply than adults. They use fewer words, simpler sentence structures, and think less abstractly. Children who are learning a second language are not overwhelmed by the task of communicating their abstract thoughts and feelings in their second language because they simply don’t have any. Then, as these children develop into adults, they learn to express themselves in both their native and second languages.

Adults, on the other hand, must face the daunting task of translating complex sentence structures and abstract thoughts to be able to fully express themselves in their second languages.

4. Children have time on their side

Think about the books you read as a child compared to the books you read now. Remember it took years of schooling and required reading to be able to understand the texts you can read now. The same applies to writing, listening, and even speaking. It took at least 15 years of academic study to be able to communicate the way you do in your native language.

Time is another one of the benefits of learning a second language at an early age. Children have time on their side. They can start small and simply and work their way up to both higher levels of thought and communication at the same time. Children have a great advantage over adults as second language learners.

5. Learning a second language prepares children to be expert problem solvers

Children who learn a second language grow up to be expert problem-solvers and creative thinkers. Their brains experience a constant workout from a young age as they try to sort out which language to speak and when.

Researchers have found that in addition to enhanced problem-solving skills, bilingual children are better at planning, concentrating, and multi-tasking. And, they score higher on standardized tests.

By teaching your child a second language at a young age, you are setting them up for success.

6. Learning a second language means a constant mental workout

Bilinguals are constantly experiencing a mental workout as they sort through more than one language system to communicate. In the 20th century, researchers and educators discouraged second language learning. A second language was thought to interfere with children’s intellectual and cognitive development. While there is evidence that bilingual children do experience this interference of language systems, it turns out that the internal conflict that bilingual children experience prepares them to be expert problem solvers.

7. Learning a second language means improved executive function

Collective evidence from various studies demonstrates that learning a second language improves the brain’s executive function. This means, bilingual children are better at:

  • Planning
  • Problem solving
  • Concentration
  • Multitasking

An Interesting Study

In 2004, psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee tested the problem-solving abilities of bilingual and monolingual preschoolers. All children were asked to sort blue circles and red squares on a computer screen in two digital bins – one marked with a blue square and the other with a red circle.

First, they were asked to sort the shapes by color putting the blue shapes in the blue bin and the red shapes in the red bin. Both children performed well.

Then, the preschoolers were asked to sort by shape placing the blue circles in the red circle bin and the red squares in the blue circle bin. This task required more concentration as the children had to place the shapes in a bin with a conflicting color. Bilingual children performed this task quicker.

8. Learning a second language leads to improved test scores

Another one of the many benefits of learning a second language at an early age is improved test scores. Students who study foreign languages perform better on standardized tests such as the American College Test (ACT) and the SAT verbal sections. In fact, students test scores improve with the length of time they have spent learning a second language.

An Interesting Study

A statewide study in Louisiana revealed that third, fourth, and fifth graders who participated in 30-minute elementary school foreign language programs in the public schools showed significantly higher scores on the 1985 Basic Skills Language Arts Test than did a similar group that did not study a foreign language.

Further, by fifth grade, the math scores of language students were also higher than those of students not studying a foreign language.
Both groups were matched for race, sex, and grade level, and the academic levels of students in both groups were estimated by their previous Basic Skills Test results and statistically equated. The results of the analysis suggest that foreign language study in the lower grades helps students acquire English language arts skills and, by extension, math skills.

Rafferty, E. A. (1986). Second language study and basic skills in Louisiana. US. Louisiana, from ERIC database.

9. Learning a second language fosters creative thinking

A boost in creativity is another one of the benefits of learning a second language at an early age. Various studies have proven it. 

One of the most used creativity tests is called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) created by Ellis Paul Torrance in 1962. These tests are designed to measure “divergent thinking” or thinking outside the norm, thinking creatively. They measure participants’ divergent thinking in four areas: fluency, flexibility, originality, and elaboration.

Bilingual children score higher on the TTCT.

10. Learning a second language develops divergent thinking

Bilingual children learn to see the world through different lenses. Therefore, they have different points of view at their disposal to be able to think creatively.

Every new language we learn presents us with new obstacles in terms of conveying meaning. For example, Turkish and Russian have no equivalents for the English verbs “to have” or “to be” – two of the most common English verbs. As bilingual minds work out ways to bypass these barriers, they engage in intensive divergent thinking – the same divergent thinking that stimulates creativity.

Interesting Fact

As technology advances in today’s world, machines are mastering more and more intricate tasks such as translating texts or diagnosing illnesses. According to The Economist, 47% of jobs in America are vulnerable to automation. In poorer countries such as India and Ethiopia, those numbers are even higher.

Can you guess why more jobs in poorer countries are vulnerable to automation?

Rich countries have more jobs that are hard for machines to perform. The jobs that require original ideas (like advertising) or complex social interactions (like arguing a case in court) will be left to humans. 

In times like these, CREATIVITY is more important than ever.