toddlers2My kids, aged 1 and 3, currently go to a bilingual Kindergarten in Vienna. They speak (well, the 1-year old not so much) both German and English at Kindy, and exclusively English at home. And it works! Every day my daughter surprises me with a new word in German, or part of a song that she has picked up from the other kids… yesterday it was something about St. Nikolaus with her Dutch friend and an Austrian child as they sat on a swing in the park. It’s amazing how absorbent she is- a little language sponge soaking up the verbal spills.

We are surrounded here with children in the same situation: bilingual and multilingual toddlers, who are happy and confident speaking to one parent in one language, the other in another, and yet a third at Kindy. Indeed, it has become the norm, with mixed nationality marriages requiring the offspring to grow up with two cultures and languages. So why is there still a debate about when a second language should be introduced. The only answer should be: RIGHT NOW!!

Young children are natural language acquirers; they are self-motivated to pick up language without conscious learning, unlike adolescents and adults. They have the ability to imitate pronunciation and work out the rules for themselves. The idea that learning to talk in another language is difficult does not occur to pre- teens and toddlers unless it’s suggested by adults, who themselves probably learned foreign languages academically at a later age through grammar-based text books.

There are so many advantages of beginning a language early:

  • Young children are still using their individual, innate language-learning strategies to acquire their home language and soon find they can also use these strategies to pick up another language.
  • Young children have time to learn through play-like activities. They pick up language by taking part in an activity shared with an adult. They firstly make sense of the activity and then get meaning from the adult’s shared language.
  • Young children have more time to fit languages into the daily programme. School time tends to be informal and children’s minds are not yet cluttered with facts to be stored and tested. They may have little or no homework and are less stressed by having to achieve set standards.
  • Children who have the opportunity to pick up a second language while they are still young appear to use the same innate language-learning strategies throughout life when learning other languages. Picking up third, fourth, or even more languages is easier than picking up a second.
  • Young children who acquire language rather than consciously learn it, as older children and adults have to, are more likely to have better pronunciation and feel for the language and culture. When monolingual children reach puberty and become more self-conscious, their ability to pick up language diminishes and they feel they have to consciously study the language through grammar-based programmes. The age at which this change occurs depends greatly on the individual child’s developmental levels as well as the expectations of their society.

Children at this age WANT to speak, and they don’t really seem to mind which language it is, or even more importantly, how good or bad their grammar/ pronunciation/ sentence structure is. All that comes later when they realise that other people judge them, but right now they are the lucky ones- they are free and happy with what they produce… but it won’t last for ever.