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Research shows children can learn multiple languages simultaneously


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January 16, 2012

Bilingual parents wondering which language to teach their children should know they don’t have to choose.

Jürgen Meisel, Distinguished Fellow in the Language Research Centre, says that children have an inborn language acquisition faculty that, during age 18 to 36 months, enables them to develop and productively use large parts of the grammar of the languages they have been exposed to since birth. If they are raised in a multilingual environment, this faculty can be used to acquire more than one language simultaneously.

 “By age 2 the capacity to produce full sentences presents itself,” says Meisel. “This is when children acquire their knowledge of grammar, without having to be coached or trained. The ease with which they understand word order and inflection of words is key to becoming competent native speakers.”

By age 3.5 to 4 years a change begins to occur and parts of this capacity become inaccessible if languages have not already been acquired. In fact, Meisel says only 2 – 5 percent of later classroom learners of a language will become near-native speakers of the languages they learn.

Bilingualism may also have additional benefits. Learning and using two or more languages throughout life may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by up to four years.

“It may do this by stimulating the brain and building up more of a cognitive reserve,” says David Hogan, Brenda Strafford Foundation Chair in Geriatric Medicine in the Faculty of Medicine. “Learning the second language early and using both throughout life seems to give the greatest protection.”

But learning two languages together? Won’t children get confused? Meisel says no.

“Bilingual children and adults will sometimes switch languages at particular points in the sentence structure, and switching is triggered by the context they are in,” says Meisel. “At 2 – 3 years old, children know implicitly when and where to use which language. They have also learned that certain grammatical constructions are particular to one language or another. Their ‘mixing’ of languages is thus not an indication of confusion.”

In Meisel’s study, bilingual French-German children at 22 – 26 months of age understood that word order is different for German and French. In German, the verb is placed behind the subject in contexts where in French or English the verb is placed before it. The children consistently used the correct word order when speaking in each language.

According to Rahat Naqvi from the Faculty of Education, “Research also indicates that elementary school aged children can benefit from reading in two languages at the same time without hindering their ability to be effective readers in English. Multilingual literacy interventions in mainstream schools, such as dual language books, build on children’s first and second languages.”

 “Of course children need to learn to speak the dominant language,” says Mary O’Brien, Director of the Language Research Centre. “But if we can give children the gift of a second language we should do so as early as possible.”

Meisel, Hogan, Naqvi and O’Brien will participate in the CIHR Café Scientifique “But our children need to speak English”: Cognitive benefits of lifelong language learning on January 19 at 7pm at Bottlescrew Bills. Space is limited, so please RSVP to lrc@ucalgary.ca.  For more information visit www.ucalgary.ca/lrc