A topic that seems to divide opinions is the learning of multiple languages at a young age or attending baby groups and lessons in foreign languages with your baby or toddler. Critics argue that it slows the progression of the primary language; which it might do as their are more words to take on, perhaps some confusion over what is the correct word for a particular thing, they may even favour one word over another for a while until they make the connection but it doesn’t go away forever, that is just the normal way language is acquired and developed, my daughter’s first word was cat, she then started saying kitty and for many months she called all cats kitty, but now she knows a kitty is a cat and uses both, it is the same with when they call all women mummy, it is just a process of generalisation and sorting the words into their correct boxes within the brain.
I seems that the multitude of research findings lean towards the far greater benefits of multi-language speakers. In Africa it is common for many people to speak about five languages and in most countries other than English native speaking ones, the inhabitants speak more than one language.
Scans show that bilingual brains have more cross synapses and the children could be more intelligent because of this extra activity or level of thinking, it is a big form of brain training; probably the same reason as research believes it can help to stave off brain deterioration and Alzheimers.
Teaching them early gives them the greatest opportunity to become fluent as science suggests that people who do not start learning until adulthood will always make basic grammatical mistakes as the rules of their primary language become so ingrained and hard to overcome. Particularly languages that uses different word endings for masculine and feminine words. Although they have not been able to pin point an age, it is believed to be around puberty; this means the current age of starting language at schools (being about 10 – year 6-7) could be too late.
A good way to set your child up for easy future language acquisition is to teach them a foundation language like Latin or Greek as many modern languages have derived from these. Being bilingual could improve their career prospects as they would be able to work globally and it is often a desired trait of companies that work and communicate around the world.
Going back to slowing the uptake of the primary language; the fact that it increases cross synapses should eventually alleviate this and increase their understanding, read Wired to learn multiple languages for a brilliant insight. You can also try to separate out the use of different languages i.e. if you have relatives that speak a different primary language, encourage your child to only speak to the relative in that language, if you don’t have that option you could join a club, so they will primarily just speak the language at the club, until they have a good understanding and can switch between both and know the difference, or you can state which language you are speaking in for example: ‘in English we say Hello, in Spanish we say Hola, in French we say Bonjour, in Mandarin’and so on. This is a wonderful tactic employed by children’s programs such as Dora the Explorer, Go Diego Go and Ni Hao Kai Lan, we have them on dvd as the repetition (although sometimes mind numbing for the parent) adds to the memory uptake, as do songs like learning your favourite nursery rhymes in other languages – this makes it more interesting for you as well by having something different to sing; the child will recognise the tune and be able to start making that association.
We must also make sure that we pronounce the primary language correctly and repeat broken sentences back to our children using the correct grammar, this modelling will be quickly understood and applied to their own speech
Check out this article on 40 ways to encourage bilingual children to speak the minority language