By Marie-Ange West, from our recruitment team.

If you want to give your baby the best start in life, start speaking to him or her in a second language, from birth.

Babies’ brains store the sounds they hear from birth, and their in-built mirror reflex means they will try to imitate them.   And research shows the sooner you start, the better.

The Multilingual Children’s Association states:

Babies learn languages in the womb

Already a linguist…

the ideal time to start multilingualism is even before your baby is born …he gains fundamental verbal skills long before he utters his first word.[…] the brain is “primed” the first three years of life with synapses at a peak, busily setting up the optimal neural pathways to mediate language. […] Even if you don’t start from birth, the earlier is truly easier for both you and your child. By the early teens, the baby’s special abilities are completely gone.

Common myths about bilingualism in babies

My baby will be late speaking

Some people believe that a baby who starts learning two languages from birth will pronounce his or her first words later than other babies. Bilingualism isn’t responsible for the delay, however.

Dr Janet Werker of Vancouver’s University of British Colombia investigated the claims and found the opposite was true.  Not only did bilingualism have no negative impact on language development, it actually increased auditory sensitivity and visual sensitivity.

My child may stammer

In the 1950s in the USA, bilingualism was blamed for stammering.  However a book by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa explains that the myth was based on research by the US government carried out on immigrants who had poor English.  The research was found to be flawed because the questions were designed in a way that created confusion and repetition in the participants.

My baby might get confused between the languages

Confused Baby

Babies. Easy to confuse?

Some babies, as soon as they start speaking their first words, naturally learn the difference between both languages and do not get mixed up.  But more often than not, a little one who starts speaking will occasionally mix both languages in the same sentence. If this is the case with your new bundle of joy, don’t worry, they will quickly adapt the right words to the right people.

The advantages of bilingualism

Smarter babies?

A baby who learns several languages stimulates their brain without exerting any particular effort. Researchers have found that bilingual children have a more creative and  flexible way of thinking.

Bilingualism can boost your brain cells

Brain Power!

Dr. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, says her research has found babies that are bilingual are “more cognitively flexible”.

Furthermore, Ellen Bialystok, research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, found bilingual babies were more adept at learning different ways to solve logic problems or to handle multitasking, the brain’s “executive function”.

Career prospects?

It may seem early to be thinking of education and career prospects when your little one is more likely to eat a pen than write with it.

However, in school, college, university and eventually in the work place, the languages that the child speaks fluently will set them at an advantage.

According to research by the National Centre for Languages showed that the mean salary of language graduates three years after finishing university is ahead of that of graduates of engineering, maths, physics and astronomy, and chemistry.

Social benefits

Often, if the baby speaks two languages it’s because their parents come from two different countries, and two different cultures. The bilingual child will develop an appreciation for different cultures, be more tolerant towards people from different backgrounds, and can develop better social skills as a result of this.

Francois Grosjean, Ph.D. in Life as a Bilingual has conducted significant research into bilingual subjects.  He found they believe their bilingualism “fosters open-mindedness, offers different perspectives on life, and reduces cultural ignorance”.

More self-esteem

In my experience, bilingual children tend to have more self-esteem and self-confidence.

Jonathan W Pesnerand Frank Auld from the University of Windsor, Canada, back up this view.  They researched the link between self-esteem and bilingualism, and found a positive correlation, as well as a generally increased “social ease”.

Conclusion

Learning two languages from birth will be a positive experience for your child. This learning ability is said to diminish after the age of three, so my advice is to get started as soon as possible!

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  • Kate M

    I’d love my children to be bi lingual from birth. I think learning another language not only gives you opportunities but also enriches your experiences, knowledge and perspectives. I learnt two languages at university which was obviously hard work in my late teens, and I envied my fellow students who came from a bi-lingual family or had lived in the country of the language they were learning before coming to university. I don’t use my languages for business or in my daily life but they certainly opened doors for me, and I love the satisfaction I get from digesting the culture and language when I’m in a French or Spanish speaking country even though I’m a little rusty now!

    • It’s interesting that language opens up more than just linguistic doors, but cultural ones too. It’s a difficult link to prove, but an interest in language seems to breed an interest in adventure too.

  • I was brought up bilingually (Welsh and English) when I was very little and unfortunately my parents wrongly thought I was getting confused with the two languages and worried it would damage my learning abilities. As this article proves, they couldn’t have been more wrong and I really wish they had continued to speak to me in Welsh. I always remember envying people at school that had been brought up bilingually as language learning seemed so easy to them as a result.

    • It’s a shame that there are myths out there which discourage bilingualism, and I can’t blame your parents as they wanted what was best for you.

      Perhaps with an increasing emphasis on the value of language, we might find that some of the myths are eradicated and language learning will be less cautiously seen.

      A multi-lingual society is a tolerant society, in my opinion!

  • Carolyn

    I brought up my three kids to be bilingual (English-Spanish) as I was brought up. We faced many challenges in doing so, and many people against it, but the result has been great!
    In my case, it has been a door opener from the get go and I couldn’t imagine not doing this for my own children. It actually irritates me when I find people I grew up with who emigrated to the US and now only speak “English” to their children because it is the language of their new country and forget their Spanish roots. I believe it is selfish and hurtful.
    I believe it can only work as an advantage for a child to know more than one language.

    • Thanks for the comment Carolyn. It amazes me that there are barriers to bringing up your children bilingually, rather than support.

      My own experience with my baby is that it is exhausting at times to find the energy to speak a second language. However, the benefits are so great I know I must find the strength to do so for at least an hour a day. One day I will look back and be proud of what I did.

      Congratulations for bringing up your children bilingually. If you have any advice we’d love to hear it!

  • Hamidou

    It is no secret that we live in a world where knowledge of more than one language is a plus. Initiation of bilingualism in children gives them the ability to speak two languages from an early age. The simple fact of exposing your child to two languages in his/her environment opens the doors of bilingualism. A word in Language A here, and another in Language B there, and your child grows up using both languages. My wife and I use both English and French when we talk to our little girl. She does pretty well because she will answer you using the language in which you asked the question. Furthermore, she will watch cartoons on both English and French TV channels! Vive le Bilingualism!

  • Maddalena C. (Italy)

    I think that bilingual babies will have a brighter and successful future, because they will be able to speak two languages fluently without learning them at school. This means that when they grow up and apply for a job, their curriculum will be more interesting and they will be able to match their skills with an appropriate knowledge of languages.
    Nowadays, in my opinion, the luckiest babies speak English and Spanish or English and French!

    • Marie-Ange West

      I’m French and my husband is English, so I guess I’m going to have a lucky baby! Cool. 🙂