Children learning languages running on grass

Not teaching our children more languages is a waste of good brain

We are leaving a resource untapped. Start them young – their brains want it.

A short while back I told a little group of Spanish mums I would have to bring my 4-year old daughter with me to the mechanic so she could tell him what was wrong with the car. They thought that was reasonably funny and I think I scored a couple of easy points.

But I was only half-joking – even though my daughter is mainly into princesses, and cars only really interest her if they are pink and the headlights have eye-lashes. And yes, we actually did see one of those in London once.

What she is interested in is languages. She is half English/half Danish and for the past two years we have lived in Spain. I have tried to learn Spanish myself, but hers is just better than mine. Soon, I will also be surpassed by her English, I am sure, and she has really started to pick up the Danish of late – even though I am the only one in her world that speaks it with her.

And my daughter is no prodigy child. She is just another normal 4 year old girl. Soon to be five.

Kids just get it
It is pretty much common knowledge that children are much better at learning languages than adults. They just “suck them up,” I have heard quite a few times. And that is very true indeed. They do.

The people who are most aware of this are, normally, parents of children who for one reason another have been exposed to two or more languages at a very young age. Children who have astounded their parents without even trying. Hearing a child who can barely wipe her own bottom, and likes to stare at bogeys on fingertips, effortlessly switch from French to English, and then to German and back to French – or whatever the combination may be – is a true wonder to behold.

So it’s a darned shame that we do not nurture this wonder any more than we do.

My daughter simply provides a good example of the fact that human beings have an innate ability to acquire languages. Whether we are actually born with a specific instinct for this, or language is a product of our social interactions, has been the matter of some scholarly debate, but is irrelevant for practical purposes.

What most scholars, such as American Noam Chomsky and Canadian Steven Pinker, do agree upon is that a child has an ability to subconsciously internalize grammatical logics. Structures the child understands on an operational level without really being aware of them; tacit knowledge, in other words.

An example: In English, the definite article (‘the’) comes before the noun, so we say ‘the car’. In Danish the article comes after: a car is ‘en bil’ – the car is ‘bilen’. No questions asked, a child exposed to both languages will pick up both logics in no time without even noticing. Just as they will pick up that if ‘he was’ then of course ‘they were’. Even though in Danish the child needs to use the verb ‘var’ for both the plural and singular form – it doesn’t change as it does in English. The Spanish go the other way, of course.  They have multiple conjugations of the past tense of ‘to be’ – and even two verbs for ‘to be’. 

But kids just get it all – up to a certain age, at least. Most scholars also agree that the ability to acquire a language, or multiple languages, starts to diminish at around the age of 6.

At this age, and before, the child not only gulps up grammar, but is sensationally adept at making new sounds that an adult can never fully learn. Ask any adult Frenchman to say ‘philharmonic’ or a Thai to say ‘synthesizer’. Let them practise for a few years and then come back — it will still be magnificently entertaining when you hear them trying. It’s just not gonna happen. But a 5-year old would have mastered it by watching a couple of dubbed episodes of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse whilst balancing a bogey on her fingertip.

After the age of 6 the language magic starts to go away. It sort of makes sense from a biological point of view: The brain allocates resources to where they are most needed. First the child needs the basics, like eating and walking. Next in line is the foundation for virtually all future learning: language. And once that is in place, the brain starts shifting resources to other types of tasks: torching ants with magnifying glasses, trigonometry or playing the violin – whatever task is at hand.

What else happens at 6? Well, that’s about the same time we start sending the kids to school. But when I went to school in the early 1980s, I didn’t start learning a second language until the fifth grade – that’s at age 10, years after the language-learning part of my brain had gone into semi-retirement, sipping mojitos on a linguistic balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. So it has taken me blood, sweat and tears, and more than 10 years of living with an Englishwoman, to get my English to the level it is at today.

If someone had only started me a couple of years earlier, it would all have come to me with virtually no effort. Something that was proven to me years later.

The difference two years make
Linguistics and the relationship between mind and language first caught my attention back at university where I studied it for a semester. Round about the same time I made a Filipino friend and learned that he had arrived in Denmark at the age of 6. But you wouldn’t know from his command of Danish that he wasn’t born in Denmark. Danish was basically his mother tongue – an effortless manifestation of the mind.

At some point I learned that when he arrived in Denmark, he had come with an older brother – age 8 at the time. So I asked my friend how his brother’s Danish was now. And despite them having arrived at the exact same time – more than 20 years earlier — and only two years separating them, the older brother’s Danish was allegedly worse. Still very good, but not completely naturalised like the younger brother’s and with a slight accent.

In short: Our children absorb languages like little sponges, but from the age of 6, the sponge starts to harden rapidly. Language learning is no longer a natural top priority of the brain. The child continues to add words to her vocabulary, of course, but the underlying foundation is now congealing and won’t easily be budged or expanded.

Yet, with a couple of exceptions, Children in the EU generally don’t start learning a foreign language until they are somewhere between 6 and 11 – depending on what country they live in.

What a shame it is. By starting early we could basically give our children the gift of multilingualism even without them having to try very hard. Most of the time, my daughter finds languages fascinating. She makes fun of words on road signs. Asks curious questions about why some people speak this and some that. Has little philosophical conversations with herself about what certain things are called in one language and what they are called in another. She’s even invented her own little language that she calls “mushroom”.

What she is having is metalinguistic reflections. We don’t want to get too academic here, but for, say, a monolingual English speaker, language and thought are pretty much perceived as being the same thing: you think in your language. Yet for a multilingual child, the world is magically opened up. If things are said in different ways in different languages, then clearly language must be something that is built on top of our thoughts. And the frame that language puts reality in is arbitrary: It doesn’t have to be a particular way.

A classic example is provided by a Danish linguist named Louis Hjelmslev. Us poor Danes only have two words to talk about trees: one that covers both the material (wood) and the plant (tree) — and one for any kind of forest. The English have four different words with distinct meanings. The Spanish have five. Yet the Danes are of course perfectly able to communicate about all aspects of the humble tree:

English Danish Spanish
tree træ árbol
wood leña
woods skov bosque
forest selva

A 5-year old exposed to these wonders of mind and language will, consciously as well as subconsciously, ask herself quite a few questions. Reflect on things. And this adds subtle layers of understanding, and questioning, to the child’s mind. Indeed, trilinguals tend to have greater success as they grow up – curious, versatile and adaptable as they have become. 

And, of course, we haven’t even mentioned the benefits of actually being able to communicate effortlessly and flawlessly in two, or even three, languages. You will be able to gain a deeper understanding of more people and to travel the world in communicative style.

In conclusion, not teaching our children more languages from a very early age is simply a waste of good brain. We should start them in year 1 in school at the latest — but preferably in nursery, kindergarten, reception or whatever we may call our pre-school institutions.

By ‘teaching’ I really mean ‘giving’. There is no need to teach a 4-year old a language in the sit-at-the-desk-and-learn meaning of the word. Because the brain is all geared up for just listening, absorbing and learning. Instead, a new language can be introduced in play by an adult native speaker of the language. Lord knows, if that language was English, there are enough Brits wanting to travel abroad to fill up all of Europe’s schools.

This might not happen any time soon, but parents can well promote multilingualism themselves. Are you not English, but speak the language fairly well? Try reading bedtime stories to your child in English – or another foreign language. Do you have digital TV with a “language” (sometimes called A/B) button? Try clicking it and have your child watch cartoons in a foreign language. There will be initial protest, but after a while curiosity will get the better of the child — especially if you are reading bedtime stories in the same foreign language.

Better yet, of course, is a combination of the two. The child needs to hear a new language constantly to really internalize it. In kindergarten and at home, preferably — used as a natural means of communication. Spain is actually one of the countries that introduce English in schools from year 1, but as a Spanish parent told me, it is at the “Hello, this is a chair”-level. That’s not enough and won’t do much good. Ideally, the foreign language should not be a separate subject but an integral part of a day in kindergarten or school. We need to surround our children with the foreign language.

Oh, I failed to mention that my daughter actually goes to a British school here in Spain. Yet, she is the only non-Spanish child in her class. Parts of the educated Spanish middle-class have long since realised that their children need more advanced English than “Hello, this is a chair” to realise their potential across borders in the future. So here in Valencia, Spain’s third largest city with a population of about 1.5 million people, there are no less than six private so-called ‘British Schools’ where almost all the children are Spanish but the curriculum is taught primarily in English. And where most kids start at the nursery stage at age 3!

That is why, when we go to birthday parties for the children of these wise Spanish parents, we have great difficulties communicating with the adults — but easily chat away with little 5-year olds in Hello Kitty costumes.

We are actually off to one of those parties now. If only I had watched Spanish cartoons when I was a child …