Are you waiting for your children to be seven or eight years old to start learning a new language? Discover why you should wait no more and why children should start learning Spanish at a young age.
The sooner, the better
Language acquisition is a lengthy and often challenging process. And that perception (which we have as adults) is why we used to think learning a new language beginning in kindergarten was too demanding for children. However, research has showed this to be false. In fact, children have an extraordinary capacity to learn any language they’re surrounded by. So if you want your child to grow up bilingual in your own language and Spanish, the sooner they start learning, the better.
Those who start learning Spanish at a young age reach a native-like fluency and no noticeable accent. And the reason for such an extraordinary achievement is because, until the age of eight, learning a new language is similar to acquiring one’s mother tongue. In simple terms: children can learn new words without making a special effort.
Learning Spanish at a young age: the exposure method
For your children to learn Spanish at a young age, nothing will be as efficient as exposing them to the language. Having daily conversational classes with a Spanish speaking tutor, for example, will boost their vocabulary quickly. Furthermore, everyday activities such as games, rhymes, lullabies, children’s books and traditional songs can have a very strong impact without making it seem like a “class”. Unlike what will happen once they reach high school, learning Spanish at a very young age can and will be fun.
By learning another language while they are still developing their brain, children are quick to associate the word and its meaning. We may underestimate their abilities, but scientists have proven that babies only a few months old can already understand what some words refer to.
Often, at this stage, they can even relate feelings and concepts to the words they are leaning, which doesn’t happen in older learners. For example, if you learnt English as an adult or as a teeanger, “smile”, “love” and “happiness” don’t provoke such positive feelings as their synonyms in your first language. The explanation for this ‘phenomena’ is simple: older learners are more rational, and learning a new language is therefore a rational process. The concepts of ‘smile’, ‘love’ and ‘happiness’ are already represented by other words and cannot be replaced. Instead, they will be matched to a translation, which is why many of us may think first in our mother language and build the sentence in our second or third languages afterwards.
At the same time, new concepts can be internalized as kids learn words without looking for clear translations to other languages. In Spanish, that can go from a simple ‘¡Qué aproveche!’ before meals (in English, ‘aproveche’ can be translated as ‘taking advantage of’ or ‘seize’; in this case it can be translated as ‘enjoy your meal’) to the ‘tener ganas’ attitude, which means ‘to really want something’/ ‘to desire it’ or ‘sobremesa’, which defines the moment when a meal is completed but everyone’s still talking at the table. Undoubtedly, some of these words originate in cultural aspects and traditions of the countries where Spanish is spoken. Others, like ‘golpista’ (someone who’s a leader of a military coup) relate to their history.
Children also have a better memory and their brains are suitable to be trained and exercised. For language learners, this means an increased capacity to memorize more new words – a child with less than three years may learn as much as 15 new words per day. And the knowledge learnt at this age will be harder to forget than that learnt later in life, which is why people very rarely forget their first language even if they spend years without using it.
On the other hand, a younger brain’s flexibility also extends to its perception of sounds. Until the age of six, kids learning Spanish at a young age can easily pick up new sounds and imitate them – after all, imitation is a crucial aspect of everything we learn as children. This explains why most people who learnt a foreign language when they were little show no trace of an accent, unlike older learners, who may struggle with certain sounds even after years of exposure and daily use.
Thus, it becomes essential for children trying to learn Spanish to hear it and communicate with it. A tutor can help to assure live conversations and correct the child’s pronunciation whenever wrong. Some parents also hire nannies who are able to converse in a second language, or choose schools where teachers and classmates use another idiom such as French, German or Spanish. In countries in which these options are unavailable – for example, due to the lack of Spanish teachers – online academies with especially prepared programs might help parents with this task.
But as children become older, it is important to expand their abilities beyond listening and talking. Children’s books, for example, are an excellent way for them to start correlating what they hear to its written form. And then, as soon as they start writing in their mother language, they should start writing in their second language too. This will avoid their preference towards the first, besides continuing a well-rounded learning experience. For children trying to learn Spanish at a young age, the teacher will ask much of the same a regular school teacher asks for – compositions, spelling bees and reading activities.
Once all those reading, writing, listening and speaking abilities are developed, learning Spanish will go on and students should venture into Hispanic literature to gain even more fluency. In due time, learners are expected to catch vernacular expressions, grasp different Spanish accents and develop an increasingly eloquent style.
Of course, at that point, we expect children and teenagers who started learning Spanish at young age to further explore Hispanic culture as well. Being able to understand Spanish is only a stepping stone to a broader understanding of our world and global history. For those who can, we strongly advise enrolling in ‘study abroad’ programs. Studying and living in a country where Spanish is spoken is the ultimate learning experience.
Prepare the future
Research also shows that the flexibility provided by speaking two languages makes it easier for bilinguals to learn new languages, especially those closely related to one of the languages they’re already fluent in. Most likely, this happens because the auditory cortex, the part of the brain responsible for perceiving auditory stimuli and sending them to Wernike’s area, where sounds are processed, is more developed in multilinguals. Other areas which are more developed in polyglots include the motor cortex, which controls the mouth in actual speech, and the Braca’s area, which organizes speech. You can find out more about this topic on our previous post Could a Multilingual Brain Make You Smarter?. And with that being said, you can expect your bilingual children not only to perform better in foreign languages, but on the rest of their subjects as well.
With all these aspects in mind, we can expect bilinguals to be more open to new cultures and to new concepts. Maybe they will even feel as if they have two cultures of their own, and adopt some traditions or habits like enjoying their ‘sobremesa’.
A study made in the United States revealed that they also have more interest in traveling and international careers, are less prone to stereotypes and have more positive ratings of cultural acceptance.
These are global citizens who are ready to take challenges anywhere in the world – they can easily adapt to change and, if they speak a language such as Spanish, communicate without effort in more than 20 countries and with over 387 million native speakers. This represents an amazing opportunity for cultural exchange and less worrisome travels! And in turn, these provide an increased creativity and a higher empathy towards others.
In fact, because of those opportunities, bilinguals are actively sought by multinationals. Today, Spanish opens thousands of doors in the business world thanks to the emerging economies of Latin America (Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Colombia) and its emergence as the second most spoken language in the United States of America (more than 35 million speakers, mostly in the Southern States, California, Florida and New York). Some job postings commonly occupied by bilinguals include customer care and customer service, translation and interpretation services, localization services, sales departments, communications manager, marketing manager, brand ambassador, local representative, market analyst, mediator and intercultural negotiator. And, in general, the average salary of bilingual professionals is also higher than that of their monolingual peers.
But beyond these exciting career options, we would also like to remind readers that the continuous exercise of learning and speaking more than one language has a very strong and positive impact in our human brains. As adults, multilinguals display better problem solving skills, improved memory and, possibly, less chances of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s.
So while learning Spanish at a young age is certainly an investment on your children’s future careers, it is also an investment on their future well-being and openness towards the multicultural world they will have to live in. Some people say it’s never too late to start…but in this case, it’s never too early to begin!