What is the best age to begin teaching your child a second language? Some people would say you’re never too young to start. Many bilingual parents speak to their children in two languages from the moment they are born.
There is an old theory that it’s better for a child to master one language before starting another; however, this is no longer adhered to by experts. Instead, most studies have shown that learning a second language at the same time as most children say their first words – anywhere between eight to 16 months – doesn’t alter this time frame or lead to language delays.
This is fine if you are bilingual (or multilingual), but what if you are a monolingual parent? When and how should you teach your child a second language? Rachael Kenyon, who has been teaching children, including her own, French with her club Bonjour Les Enfants for the past eight years, says the best way to start is to give your child as many opportunities as possible to hear a language that they may learn being spoken.
Playing tapes of nursery rhymes, songs or watching DVDs in another language is a good start. Finding a range of activities that children do in another language is also essential, because different children learn in different ways. Auditory learners will respond to listening, while dual-language picture books and flashcards work well for more visual learners.
And for children who can already read, putting labels on things around the house, naming them in another language is helpful. By the time your child is three, she may enjoy a foreign language playgroup or club. “My classes are half an hour long and, although the emphasis is on the children having fun with games and songs, that’s a long time for a child under the age of three to concentrate,” says Rachael.
Of course, the very best way for children to learn is to visit the country itself and hear the language being spoken naturally – especially by children their own age. And encouraging your child to ask for something when you’re in a shop or café is all the better. Being rewarded with an ice cream or similar treat you have asked for in another language is the very best, and this will then help her to see the value of speaking another language.