After several decades of gradual decline, foreign-language learning is now on the upswing. Educators and businesses alike see value in knowing a second language. There are several things parents should know about second-language learning to help their children be successful in this endeavor.
Learning an additional language confers lifelong personal benefits.
What Are the Benefits of Second-Language Learning?
Learning an additional language confers lifelong personal benefits that may include a deeper knowledge of the world, interaction with and understanding of a different culture, and direction for the development and expression of special interests. For example, if a teacher of an uncommon language such as Icelandic or Nahuatl happens to be available, study of one of those languages can lay the foundation for a lifetime of intellectual exploration and travel. The so-called dead languages can also offer appropriate challenges for the linguistically gifted child.
Chief among the academic benefits are the acquisition of a larger vocabulary and a more nuanced understanding of the origins and meanings of the words in one’s first language. Some authorities particularly favor the study of Latin for these purposes, although other languages confer similar benefits. Several research studies have related competency in Latin to greater reading ability and to higher reading and math scores on the SAT and ACT. Latin and Greek especially offer helpful background knowledge for those learning the biological sciences, as many scientific and medical terms have their roots in these languages. Knowledge of German is useful in the chemical sciences, where for many years it was the language of choice for communicating research findings.
When students complete their formal schooling, second-language competency may have professional benefits. Careers in medicine, law, business, and academe are enhanced by the ability to communicate with a linguistically diverse audience. With increasing globalization, knowledge of world languages such as Arabic and Hindi will become even more important for many careers. Some evidence also suggests that knowing more than one language enhances creative thinking, a valued quality in many professions.
When Should My Child Learn a Second Language?
For learning a contemporary language, younger is better. Babies are born with the capacity to learn any language. At age three, humans begin to lose the ability to discriminate among sounds that are not used in their first language. After age seven or so, for reasons that are not fully understood, it becomes much more difficult to develop a native accent in a foreign language.
Unfortunately, most schools and parents do not act on this knowledge. Ideally, a child hears two languages from birth and naturally develops proficiency in both. Popular accounts of children “losing” a first language when they are raised in a multilingual environment are simply untrue. Although multilingual children may start speaking a few months later than their monolingual peers, ability differences associated with multilingualism generally disappear by age five.
The next best approach, if learning a second language from birth is not possible, is to enroll your child in a dual-immersion program in school. In this approach, students and teachers use one language for half of the school day and the other language for the other half. Although this model is most common at the elementary level, some middle and secondary schools also offer dual-immersion programs. Often these are found at charter or magnet schools.
Finally, regardless of when your child starts learning a second language, the high school years are a great time to apply this learning through an exchange program or other study-abroad experience. In the right program, students can learn more of a foreign language in a single semester in another country than they would learn in four years of classroom study.
—Michael S. Matthews, PhD
Michael S. Matthews is an assistant professor in the gifted education program of the Department of Special Education at the University of South Florida in Tampa. His research interests include creativity, underachievement, and cultural and linguistic diversity.
- “Quo Vadis? Laboring in the Classical Vineyards: An Optimal Challenge for Gifted Secondary Students,” by Joyce Van Tassel-Baska, Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, volume 15, issue 2, Winter 2004
- “Vocabulary and Grammar: Critical Content for Critical Thinking,” by Michael Clay Thompson,Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, volume 13, issue 2, Winter 2002
- A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism, 2nd edition, by Colin Baker, Multilingual Matters, 2000
- “A Case for the Teaching of Latin to the
Verbally Talented,” by Joyce Van Tassel-Baska, Roeper Review, volume 9, issue 3, February 1987