Sunday, February 22, 2009

Teaching Babies Languages

Many wise and insightful things have been said about how easily babies learn language. Many clever and extensive scientific studies have informed the subject. But many intriguing questions remained unresolved--questions like:

Does learning more than one language early in life enhance (or, perhaps, interfere with) learning the baby's first, obviously crucial, "native" language?

Does it enhance (no one, to my knowledge, has suggested it might interfere with) learning other things like acculturation, artistic sensitivity, imaginative and creative thinking, or even logic and other cognitive abilities?

To what extent does it depend on close emotional relationships?

To what extent is the capacity to learn a language or languages (particularly their grammars) inborn?

To what extent, and when, does language-learning ability come of age and fade (in other words, to what extent, and when, is there an "awakening" for this capacity in early childhood development, and a "sun-setting")?

Despite these and other interesting controversies, a few things stand clear--they are obvious even with the most rudimentary and unsophisticated observations: essentially, little kids learn languages more quickly than older kids and grown ups*:

They pick up vocabulary faster (despite the obvious disadvantage of not knowing translational cognates).

They pick up variations in grammar quicker (which probably has to do both with climbing out of learned mental ruts and with the increased embarrassment that comes on with latency and expands in adolescence).

And they learn better pronunciation (which is probably mostly related to the fact that monolingual kids learn to ignore certain phonemic distinctions; for example, childhood learners of Mandarin who have no phonemic experience with other languages learn to be unable to distinguish a "rrr" sound from a "lll" sound, and this learned inability becomes deeply--perhaps ever neurologically--ingrained; yes, this is a learned inability).

Combine these advantages with the equally obvious social and vocational advantages of being fluent in more than one language, and it becomes clear that an important part of optimal child-rearing is assuring that young kids (age, say, zero to twelve) be richly exposed to multiple languages. In the Berlitz family, the grand patriarch and founder of the dynasty, Maximilian Berlitz, had a couple of interesting rules for the kids. One was that each adult had an assigned language: grandpa spoke with the children only in German, for example; momma, only in Russian; the nanny, only in Spanish. One Berlitz offspring recalls wondering as a child why he didn't have his own personal language since each adult seemed to have a different, private language; he decided he would probably get one when he was older.

Another family rule which applied to all kids of elementary through high-school age was that each one studied a new language each year.

What a rich educational bounty it is to give a child multiple language fluencies!

And--being nontraditional and inconvenient--how often neglected!

Note: * The exception to youth's advantage is for people who already know several languages who seem to be able to learn an additional language quickly; reportedly, for example, a U.N. translator who had simultaneous translation abilities in six languages and conversational fluency in some two dozen others was able to learn Icelandic to conversational proficiency in two weeks. It has been estimated that learning a foreign language of the same general group as a language one already knows (such as learning another Indo-European or Romance language, e.g., Spanish or Hungarian, if one already knows French) requires 40 to 60 hours studying vocabulary and a comparable amount of time in conversational practice (grammar is not studied as a separate discipline but is learned en passant during the practice).