Benefits of Early Foreign Language Exposure

bbds-cr-13The ability to learn a language is, they say, part of the “software” we’re born with, running in slightly different ways based on specific data inputs. This “program” is called “universal grammar,” and it explains how children can learn so quickly despite being surrounded by unfamiliar sounds, many of which aren’t even part of language!”

Even in the womb a baby can begin to pick up on the rhythm and cadence of speech—what linguists (and poets) call prosody. As Dr. Yang a linguist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania suggests, hum a sentence in English and then one in Spanish. There are broad distinctions between the patterns of stress and how long you hold different syllables between these languages. Scientists have proven that even newborns are sensitive enough to these differences to notice when a speaker switches from one language to another. From the get-go, babies use prosody to pull speech out of “the acoustic mess that conceals consonants, vowels, and words”.

If the most critical step of language learning for a child is the process of finding the language—of picking its words and sounds and rhythms out from all the “acoustic mess” around them—then help them find more than one language! This won’t mix them up anymore than playing Radiohead and Rachmaninoff will leave them later incapable of telling rock from classical. The astonishing truth is “children are infinitely better at learning languages than we are”.

It really seems that earlier is better because earlier is easier.

The Infinite Gift: How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World by Dr. Charles Yang