If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.
~ Nelson Mandela
The other day I was sitting in a park having a conversation with fellow parents about the best time to start introducing our children to languages. Is there ever such a thing as too young, we wondered? What language should you expose them to first that will be most beneficial—French, Spanish, Chinese? And what about if you introduce them to more than one language—will they become confused?
As someone who has been exposing her daughter to languages since she was a baby, I don’t believe you can ever start too young. Not because I ever had the intention of my daughter becoming multilingual by the time she was four, but simply because I want her to appreciate and understand that there are other languages out there—to view them as music, to feel calm in their sound, to enjoy them. My philosophy behind this viewpoint is simple: that if she feels comfortable in the cadence of a myriad of languages, then she will be open to the world and, in being open to the world, she will always be open to learning any language she wants.
With this in mind, I’ve had her listen to French nursery rhymes since she was a baby. Some of her first words were Spanish, as we spent a number of months living in a small village there when she was tiny. And wherever we go, I always encourage her to speak a few words of that particular language. Now that she is that much older, we have begun more formal learning with a children’s Spanish class and Rosetta Stone French. I don’t believe she is confused with what she does know, because she sees each language as unique and different, which is perhaps something we adults underestimate in children.
Children really are like sponges, and although working through this particular learning system is taking a lot longer than if it were just us parents learning—because my daughter wants to repeat the same lesson over and over until she has it right, and also because in my opinion you can’t force a six-year-old to study at set times on set days because that would take the fun out of it!—the thing I have been most impressed by is her pronunciation.
Perhaps due to constant exposure to various languages and a first-hand knowledge and realisation that lots of different people speak in lots of different ways, she has no sense of embarrassment as perhaps we adults do, so she copies with gusto. I feel confident that, in doing so, if she wants to learn Chinese at 15, she most certainly will.
Languages for me are not just about knuckling down to study every day. I believe a true appreciation of language comes from listening, enjoying and then naturally trying to learn—in which case there is never such a thing as ‘too young’.
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