In years past, many researchers were of the opinion that early exposure to two languages could have detrimental impacts on children's language and cognitive development.
It is true that children who are learning to speak two languages may temporarily have smaller vocabularies for each of the languages. However, the overwhelming benefits of exposure to multiple languages in early childhood may be enough to throw caution to the wind and start promoting bilingualism with your little one.
Your bundle of joy is born with an innate ability to discern tiny differences in the speech sounds of every human language. However, without exposure to these different sounds, your baby's developing brain will lose the ability to perceive differences among these sounds by 6 months of age.
This is one way your baby's developing brain can focus on making strong connections for the language that will be used throughout his life, and one way to weed out connections that are simply taking up precious neural real estate. Of course, if your tot is consistently exposed to a language, phonological awareness of that language's sounds will be retained.
Early (and sustained) exposure to more than one language may make it easier for your little one to learn multiple languages later in childhood. Plus, exposure to multiple languages can have positive effects in other domains of your little one's development. For instance, many children learning two languages with the same letters and symbols (e.g., English and German) learn to read faster than children learning only one language. Bilingual children also exhibit cognitive advantages on many verbal and non-verbal attention tasks.
Some families are fortunate to have more than one language present in a household (lucky ducks!). For those of us living in monolingual households, here are five simple ideas for exposing our babes to languages early in life to promote bilingualism and the accompanying cognitive benefits…
Books on tape…er, app.
Pick a time of day when you are not typically exposing your tot to your native language (when you are in a laundry-folding session, perhaps?) and fill the gap with an audio book in another language.
Or choose a different language for each day of the week. Anyone up for French Fridays and Swedish Sundays? For a variety of free multi-language audio books, we love the LibriVox app!
The building blocks of language.
Promote language learning while your tot perfects those fine motor skills with a few bilingual-themed toys. We are in love with Uncle Goose blocks in a variety of languages. Building towers with your little one might just build on your foreign language skills as well!
I saw the signs.
Although the verdict is still out on the potential developmental benefits of using baby sign language to communicate with your little one, research does show that baby signs can help you bond with baby through more effective communication. Start with a few basic signs, like more, help, and thank you. Or, brush up on your American sign language and go through the ASL alphabet as you two practice your ABC's.
Sing. Sing a song.
Plenty of classic nursery rhymes and songs have similar versions in foreign languages. Try “Imse Vimse Spindel"
(aka “Itsy Bitsy Spider") in Swedish or “Frère Jacques" in French. Or, if you want your little one to listen to native speakers (or have no desire to look silly in front of your tot), sing (or lip sync) along with online songs and videos.
Books for bébé.
Read books with your babe that promote knowledge of other languages and cultures. Even if you aren't bilingual, mama, we would bet that one of your own childhood favorites is available in another language. No need to translate Buenas Noches, Luna when you have Goodnight Moon memorized!
We also love What is Your Language?, the story of a boy who visits countries around the world and learns about languages along the way. Giving your child the opportunity to hear and learn new languages isn't just about cognitive development. It's about gleaning a broader understanding of the world and, more importantly, about having fun interacting with your little language aficionado.