Can children learn English before they learn their mother-tongue?

This week’s question: Can children learn a second language before they even learn to speak their mother tongue?

Helen answers:

Many children are brought up listening to and hearing 3 or 4 languages. My grandson is a perfect example: his mother speaks to him in her mother tongue, Korean, his father speaks Hebrew, his mother tongue to him and the child has an English environment at home because his parents speak to each other in English and of course, I speak to him in English. So my grandson is growing up with 3 languages. On a recent trip to Thailand when he was only 3 months of age, he was spoken to in Thai and he was reacting beautifully to the Thai language. Did he understand it? Not sure. And at 5 months of age of course he isn’t speaking yet. But it’s clear that he understands and I will explain why this is so.

Input = Output

What we know about language is that comprehension precedes production. Understanding precedes speech. First children need to hear, absorb language, and then eventually understand the sounds and later on, to speak. That’s the order of things with children. It’s completely normal and parents may feel that because their infants don’t yet speak, they don’t understand. What happens with this mind set is that the parents don’t speak to them and the children have less language to understand and consequently, they will speak even less. Input = output. It can’t be said enough.

Research shows that children who speak at an earlier age have wider vocabularies. Not a surprise; their parents talked to them more. It is unfortunate but despite the research, I have met intelligent, educated people that don’t speak to their very young children. They say: “What’s the point? They don’t speak yet.” Of course they aren’t going to speak much because they are not getting talked to!! My 5 month old grandson is trying to say “Aba”, which means father. He says “Ah…”and then I know he is trying to speak. He said “Ah…bf…. “ . This isn’t just random sound; it’s very early speech production. The letter “B” is a bi-labial sound in which air is expelled through the lips with vibration of the vocal chords. This is opposed to “P” which is exactly the same without the vibration of the vocal chords. That’s the difference between a “P” and a “B”, whether or not the vocal chords vibrate. This speech production requires control of the diaphragm and breathing because you are expelling air. There are very few languages which have sounds of air being brought in. For my grandson to say “ummah,” the Korean word for mother, would require him to vocalize the letter “m” which is a nasal sound and this would require expelling air through the nose. As a nasal sound it would also require cutting off the buccal cavity and pushing the air up through the nasal crack which is developmentally not yet attainable.

So there we are, a 5 month old child clearly trying to say, Aba. It wasn’t random. We tried other words and no response, but as I said Aba, he began to vocalize because he has been spoken to the whole time. Non-stop. He has heard the word “aba” a thousand times; therefore, he speaks more.

Now kids have different tendencies and abilities. Age of speech varies. If the child doesn’t speak this doesn’t mean he is less bright. Some kids won’t try to speak until they can say it perfectly. This may be their nature. There is no absolute rule other than input = output.

So, why then is it okay for children to learn English before they can speak their mother tongue? Because, they can understand two languages and speak two languages at the same time! It is so important to have a second language at an early age.  English, of course, more than any other language because of its importance as an international language. It is the lingua franca in business, politics, and communications. In general, why is it important to have at least one more language? It is important to have at least one more language because of the brain’s functions. I will address this in a few different ways.

It’s All About the Brain

Children’s brains are growing from the moment of conception. When a child is born he is hard-wired for breathing, seeing and eventually, focused vision. Despite this hard wiring, the child has thousands upon millions upon billions and trillions of brain cells that are not yet connected. You cannot do anything with an unconnected brain cell; it has no pathway.  It’s all about connections. So, how do you connect brain cells? You connect them through stimulus. Through stimulus, the brain cells start to connect. They want to connect. That is their purpose. For most of them, the vast majority won’t connect but, the more stimuli we give them, the more they will connect. Once connected, they will stay connected for life. Early connections last. You can never be too young to learn. 

Language is a very complicated function. Any calculator can do the most complicated mathematics but there is no computer in the world that can produce fluent human language because human language is so complicated. It all begins with pure sounds, phonetics. Children are born with the ability to absorb, use and recognize any sound. Starting at age 4 months, they are able to narrow the sounds down to those of their mother tongue and then it becomes phonology, the patterns of sounds and how sounds are organized into systems.

Children’s brains continue to form these connections until the age of 7. Highly respected research by Johnson and Newport confirms that there is a critical time for early language learning. Their 1989 ground breaking study on the grammatical competence of doctoral and post-doctoral student immigrants from China or Korea to the USA, aged 3 – 39, showed that those who had arrived aged 3 – 7, had grammar as mother-tongue. Those who arrived age 8 – 10, didn’t do as well, but did better than those who arrived aged 11+; their second language learning parallels how adults learn. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington. Also presents scientific research supporting early language learning’s critical window: The Linguistic Genius of Babies

Earlier is Better

So, if the critical window is between 3 to 7 years, why teach children before they can speak their mother tongue. Why not wait until they are 3 years of age? Well, it does a lot for the brain.  As we learn in our mother tongue 1000 words a year, approx. until the age of 20 when it levels off, there is lots of vocabulary and brain growth. Different languages have different psychological realities. Kids start to organize pure sounds (phonetics) into psychological realities (phonology) from the age of 4 months.  That is why it is so important to introduce children to language and a second language as early as possible.

Language is so complex and intertwined. Language contains morphology, how words are structured, syntax, how a sentence is organized, phonetics, the sounds of speech, phonology, the patterns of sounds, semantics, different levels of meaning and accents.  English alone has hundreds of accents. All these different languages are organized into different sounds and these sound systems shift and move and have different realities. Language is fascinating.

While this complexity is hard for adults, for children, it’s easy and it’s a game. Children are meant to be learning continuously, especially languages.

The Advantages

Is it okay for children to learn English before they speak their mother tongue? Leading research confirms that it’s more than okay: it’s one of the better things a parent can do for their child. The more languages a child knows, the more flexible he or she is, the more intelligent. Well-documented research reveals that bilinguals and even more so multi-linguals, have less Alzheimers, and dementia. Socially, bilingualism creates more tolerance from cultural exposure; this is so essential in today’s international world. Longitudinal studies have shown that children enrolled in dual language kindergartens did better in university. There is nothing more important than a second language at an early age.

Parents need to be thinking about what they can do to optimize development between the ages of three to seven. Children get bored easily. A happy child is a learning child. A moving child is a learning child. I created and developed educational programmes, where teaching at an early age is based completely on movement, game and song. Kindergartens and schools that seat young children behind desks without much play area are not the way for a kid to learn; that is how adults learn.  By adulthood, the brain is more developed, intellectual and focused. To take how adults learn and presume that is how children learn should be rethought.

Children learn through movement and fun. All Helen Doron educational materials are created so that children can be in motion and learn and absorb and hear through repeated background hearing. Repeated background hearing imitates how children learn their mother tongue. They hear language over and over again. Even if they don’t yet speak, they are learning and processing.

Parents with babies need believe that their child understands.  Don’t ask, “How can they possibly understand?” They do! Parents speak ‘parentese’ and have an innate ability to naturally reinforce language, emphasizing certain words or syllables, intonation.  They shouldn’t feel silly. Continue to talk to your children as much as possible. Speak to them in your mother tongue. Because the way you speak to them is so important. You need to connect with them emotionally, in your mother tongue.

If there is another person in the child’s life that has a different mother tongue, they should be encouraged to speak to the child in that language, as long as it is consistent and often. Parents shouldn’t worry about speaking to children in English unless parents are completely comfortable and secure with the language. Children can and should learn a second language; your child will be on his or her way to a lifetime of opportunity and learning.

About Helen Doron

Helen began a small home business in 1985 and created a unique methodology with original and revolutionary learning materials. Her courses flourished and the business grew rapidly as Helen added teachers, teacher training courses and additional programmes based on her exclusive methodology of creativity and self-expression. New disciplines were added – maths, fitness, and infant development – and all were united under the brand name Helen Doron Educational Group.
Helen Doron Educational Group stands at the forefront of innovative educational systems providing exclusive learning programmes and quality educational materials for babies, children, adolescents and teens the world over. Helen Doron Educational Group has become one of the largest children’s educational franchisors worldwide, with close to 90 Master Franchisees and over 800 Learning Centres in 34 countries across 5 continents, and full kindergarten programmes in Turkey and South Korea.
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