Ask DadDude: learning a second language

I regularly get questions from people asking advice about their early learning situations.  I always tell them that I’m not an expert, just a fellow parent who is highly involved in his boys’ education and possessed of an interest in educational theory–but they don’t seem to care.  So I think I’m going to start answering people’s questions here in this blog, instead of privately, so others can benefit and enlighten both me and the person who is asking me advice.  I’ll leave out all identifying info.  The mother who wrote the following calls me “DadDude” because that’s been my handle on, a really interesting and useful forum.

Hi DadDude,

I have noticed that your posts are well thought out and very resourceful [stop! you’re embarrassing me!] as I am beginning the journey of early learning with my son … I look forward to reading blogs that are written by you.   He is [still a baby] and I was hoping I could get your opinion.  I have heard good and bad points about teaching him Chinese and Spanish while he is this young.  My husband and I only know English but my parents are speaking to him in [their native language].  We only see them on Sundays.  I have heard that teaching babies multiple languages could create a language delay.  I have also heard that you can begin to teach a baby multiple languages from the time they are in the womb.

I would love to hear your opinion.

Hi!  I am flattered that you think I might have something interesting to say on this question.  Maybe someone with more experience will write in the comments, because I am nowhere near the most knowledgeable person you’d want to ask this question.  I’m curious myself about how far along a child can be brought in language ability by elementary school age.  I’m sure early exposure makes it a lot easier to learn the language later on, but I’d love to hear stories to that effect.

So anyway, I must write this as I said above–just as another parent who is also trying to work out such things.

My wife is from another country so my boys are naturally learning a second language, which she speaks virtually exclusively to them.  For this reason, I probably can’t comment in any well-informed way about teaching a second language for parents neither of whom speaks another language natively to their children.  I gather, vaguely, that some studies have shown that overall language abilities of children raised with two different languages are rather better.  I also gather that they can be poorer to begin with–the language delay thing you mention–but that’s not been the case with H., no doubt because of how much I read to him and talk about language (English, of course) with him.  Maybe someone can add relevant comments about those studies in the comments section (hint hint!).

I guess if we weren’t in this position (i.e., if my wife also spoke English to them) then I would at least show some foreign language flashcards or presentations, maybe some foreign language videos, to them.  But we don’t do this.  (Lately I’ve started H. on Latin, but that’s different, as I will explain.)  I guess I would do that only because such basic language knowledge is good to have as language and overall mental training.  (Along the same lines we have read a couple of children’s books about foreign language as a subject, e.g., giving “hello” in a dozen different languages.)  Children need to understand that people from other countries speak other languages, and they need to get comfortable with that idea.  But your children will apparently at least an introduction to that basic lesson from discussion with their grandparents.  I also am sure that they get a head start in learning a foreign language from early exposure to it–in fact that’s pretty widely believed, thus “Dora the Explorer.”

I don’t know, but I’ll bet the language delay thing doesn’t occur with kids who are exposed relatively casually to foreign languages, as a “subject” on a par with how Doman kids are exposed to facts about the subject of biology.  Why would limited exposure to alternate words for things they’re familiar with confuse little ones?

Now as to Latin, I started Rosetta Stone Latin, Level 1, with H. last year, when he was four (he’s about to turn five).  We’ve kept up our study of this–mostly because I’ve insisted, I admit.  (If he resisted much I would stop, but with a little cajoling he’s along for the ride.  It has helped for me to be behind him in the program, and then I do a bunch and say, “I’m catching up with you!” and that gives him a boost of motivation.)  Rosetta Stone is excellent software, which it should be given the price…and due to his prior training, H. is actually quite good at it.  I’m usually better but yesterday I had the experience of seeing H. do a couple screens perfectly and I just said, “Huh? What?”  At the rate he’s going, we’ll be through all three levels of Latin, representing, apparently, one year of college Latin, albeit without declarative knowledge of grammar, which seems essential for Latin–we’ll hit that later, when he has gained the patience for it.

Still, some people, reading this, would immediately ask, “Latin?  At age four?  Why?” And I submit that, specific issues with Latin aside, that’s the same question that people would ask about learning any other foreign language earlier.  So we should really know why we are learning these other languages so early.

Well, I don’t know if I could defend the practice of teaching Spanish, Mandarin, French, or whatever as a second language intensively to a baby, with the aim of making a child actually fluent in the language in childhood.  I gather that the basic reason is that it’s really easy for babies to learn a foreign language, and they benefit from knowing two languages–and that is true, but as I said, it’s hard and surely requires an enormous commitment at any age to learn a foreign language fluently.  (Again, H. hears lots of his second language, but isn’t fluent; he understands a lot, but to become fluent, he’d have to have a lot more practice.  His mother intends to start a traditional course of study with him in the language within the next few years.)  Moreover, it is perfectly possible to teach elementary school kids languages, and they can take to it, and maybe learn it (if they spend an equivalent amount of time in intensive study) as fast as older people can; young people do this all the time, I gather.  So for me, it doesn’t really clinch the case to say that babies learn languages easily.  I get the sense that some people believe that with a baby, you can spend 10% of the time you’d spend with an elementary school child, with the same effect.  Is that true?  I don’t know, but I have to say I doubt it.  I’m ready to be convinced otherwise (in comments!).

Now, as to Latin, I can explain why we started this at age four.  First, he was ready for Rosetta Stone (strange, but true).  I don’t know if he would have been at age three–probably not–and he definitely wouldn’t have been earlier than that.  Starting now is going to enable H. to know Latin (and later, if I have any say in the matter, Greek) by the time he’s a teenager, when he’ll be able to benefit significantly from reading the classics in their original languages.  That’s why we’re doing it.  Besides, it takes us on average just about 15 minutes per day, five days per week.  You might ask, well, why didn’t you start with flashcards when he was younger?  Well, it came down to priorities.  I didn’t have time to think through just how to make the flashcards, and then make them.  Would we have used a bunch of kid-friendly Latin flashcards if I had found some ready-made?  Maybe.  Would we go through a baby-friendly systematic presentation of the language on video or software, if such existed?  Maybe.  Would I go all-out and go beyond such tools to make my boys fluent by age five?  No.

All I can say is that it sounds like an awful lot of work for an ability that is, for most people, just going to be another academic skill.  Your child has his whole childhood to learn a wide variety of academic skills, many of which could be introduced intensively through creative methods in earliest childhood.  Doman has given us this idea–if you really wanted to give your child the knowledge of the chemical elements that is contained in this book before the age of three, say, you probably could do that, if you really wanted to.

For example, for reasons known only to me (and maybe not even to me), I have exposed H. to a tremendous number of books and presentations about astronomy and space.  He probably knows more about this subject than most elementary school students, I guess, but we’d have to do even more, a lot more, and it would take a huge time outlay to do it, to get his knowledge level up to mine, for example.  (I have a casual amateur interest in astronomy–I had a telescope and subscribed to Astronomy when I was a kid.)  So I guess what I’m saying is that with any subject, you reach a point of diminishing returns for a given age.  Rapidly diminishing in the case of H. and astronomy, because I get the sense that he’s tired of the subject.  So we’ve laid off lately.  We’ll return to it more intensively within the next few years and I’m very sure he’ll have benefited hugely from his early exposure to all that space stuff.

I guess what I’m trying to argue is that learning to speak Spanish fluently–not just getting familiar with it, not just developing a first year college student’s understanding of it, but getting to speak it as well as a native child does–would be a huge amount of work, akin to teaching H. all the details about the planets, their sizes, moons, various astronomical objects and phenomena, everything (other than the technical math details) that would be taught in a college astronomy course.  If it’s that much work, I don’t see why it would be worth it.

Again, you might want to make the argument that early fluency in a second language benefits a child’s language abilities so greatly as to justify all the time spent doing this–and therefore, not learning other things.  Be my guest!  You might change my mind.  I’m taking the conservative-skeptical position on that one, which is why we haven’t spent much effort teaching H. to read and write in his mother’s language.  (He can read a little in that language, by the way.)

All that said, I would totally agree that first exposure to a foreign language in early childhood, even a fair bit of exposure, is a great idea.  The only reason we haven’t done this with H. & E. in their babyhood is that they were already getting lots of second language exposure from their mother.

As to learning a language in the womb…um…I’ll take a stab: they might get familiar with some intonation and maybe even some words.  Would any advantage justify reading a foreign language at your pregnant belly?  I’ll go out on a limb and say no.  I’ll try to keep an open mind, but I’m sure you have better ways of spending your time.  Of course, it might be good for you. Might be your last opportunity to learn a foreign language for a long time!  🙂





Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

4 responses to “Ask DadDude: learning a second language”

  1. Colin

    Regarding the language delay issue, both my own experience in bilingual families (both mine and my in-laws) and my university coursework in linguistics and linguistic anthopology suggest to me that while there IS often a brief delay in the development of speech for very young children in multilingual environments, it is nothing to be concerned about. Tens of millions of people around the world are raised in multilingual environments (Belgians, for instance), yet by the time they head off to school they’re perfectly fine. A delay is just that – a delay. Ultimately it doesn’t mean all that much, and the benefits of being a polyglot absolutely outweigh a few extra months of gibberish.

  2. Dominika

    Dear Larry,
    I can only speak as a parent who has invested considerably in teaching her daughter a foreign language (English, since we are Polish speakers).
    About when to teach. There are two issues here: ability to learn and willingness to learn.
    1. About ability there seems to be quite a lot of literature. I have come upon research which claims babies learn to differentiate sounds of a foreign language if they are exposed to it (but only to real speakers, not tapes etc.). Some experts claim the window of opportunity for learning that ends as early as age 9 months, others think it extends to as late as puberty. From personal experience I suspect the later date is closer to the truth.
    2. Not so much has been written about willingness. My experience is that when my daughter just learned to speak her first language (about 1 to 2,5) she was not very open to a second one. “I just learned to call a ‘pies’ [dog]a ‘pies’, so why do you suddenly want me to call it a ‘dog’”, she seemed to be saying. She had a point :). But at about 3 – 3,5 everything changed and she decided English was a fun game. Maybe because I sent her to an English-language preschool. Or maybe because I was obviously thrilled at any word in English.
    Anyway now she’s 5 and she speaks English at a level of a native 3-year old. So my conclusion is: they are ready for a second language when they feel comfortable enough in the first.

    About why to teach a foreing language: for me the main goal is to give her access to the world’s knowledge, which happens to be in English. That of course does not apply if your kid is a native English speaker. But are you so sure that in a few decades the world’s knowledge won’t be phrased in Chinese?

  3. liz

    I think it is important to understand the kids will always have a preference. My daughter has been in a multilingual environment since birth , but strongly perfers english. I always expected her to pick up both and she has in some ways but certainly not to a native fluency. No one has ever forced her to speak any other language. She understands but even in a conversation purely in another language she will continue to respond in English unless she is not being understood. Yes she can read certain word and uses word for which there Is no good translation more often. I think gaining full fluency in another language would be difficult . Unless there were situations where the other language is the only option. Kids

    1. liz

      Can gauge usefulness.

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