Raising Global Children: When should children learn a second language?

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Have you pondered over when your child(ren) should learn a second language? Or better yet, do you know a second language and do you intend to teach your child(ren) a second language?

If this topic is one that has crossed your mind a time or two, then we invite you to join the discussion on Raising Global Children. Last week, we discussed Ways to Promote Interest in other CulturesThis week we are discussing when is the appropriate time to teach children a second language?

Before we dive into the topic, we would first like to thank this week’s contributor, Tracey Tullis, a freelance writer traveling the world with her Husband and 6-year-old Son. Make sure to visit her website to learn more about her global pursuits and tweet her on twitter to share your thoughts.

@expatexperiment thank you for your contribution to #raisingglobalchildren. Click To Tweet

Week 2 topic: What are the most effective language learning tools/techniques for primary school age children? What are the direct developmental benefits of learning different languages?


We are seeking contributors for upcoming week discussions. To learn more and complete the contributor form, visit HERE.


Recent longitudinal studies by Harvard University confirm that learning additional languages increases critical thinking skills, creativity and flexibility of the mind in young children. The UK Telegraph also reports from the study:

Children who grow up learning about languages develop empathy for others and a curiosity for different cultures and ideas; prepared to take their place in a global society. Furthermore, in later years, career opportunities increase for those with additional languages to offer.

Yet, just 18 percent of Americans report speaking a language other than English, according to the U.S. Department of Education. While we consider ourselves a super power among nations, producing high paying jobs and living the ‘American Dream’, we seem to place ourselves in somewhat of a bubble when it comes to multi-cultural living. Even living in a “diverse area” does not make one culturally aware by default. Your exposure may be greater than those in less diverse areas, but unless you deliberately immerse yourself in the cultures around you, then you are not much more cultured than the person living homogeneously.

And to take it a step further, not only do a mere 18% of Americans speak a second language, only 36% of Americans even hold a passport. Jack Fischl, contributor on Mic, weighs in on the topic:

Our citizens can be our best diplomats by showing the world who we really are, but we have to leave our own country first. According to the State Department, there are 113,431,943 valid passports in circulation, which means 36% of Americans own a valid passport (and therefore 64% do not).

How do we spread our wings and fly as Americans? Well, one step would be to start with yourself and with your children teaching them a second language; taking deliberate steps to insure your children are culturally aware; and exploring the globe (it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg). So when is the best time to teach children a second language? What are the benefits? What tools and techniques are most beneficial?

raising global children
tpsdave / Pixabay

When should children learn a second language? (And should they?)

According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, it is beneficial to introduce a second language as early as three years of age. However, if you have missed that mark, it is truly never too late to begin learning another language.

The Child Mind Institute makes a similar recommendation:

Research overwhelmingly supports teaching second languages early, because as we know it’s harder to learn a second language as we get older. But when kids are very young—from birth to about three years old—they are very ripe for receiving new information. Of course you can always learn a second language later, but it takes more time and becomes more challenging.

To visit both sides of the debate over whether American students should be required to learn a second language, hop over to debate.org for a two-way discussion on the topic.

What are the direct developmental benefits of learning different languages?

Susan Canizares, who holds a PhD in language and literacy development, list the following as benefits to learning different languages:

  1. Certain cognitive gains in which children seem to have a greater communicative depth that may boost thinking skills;
  2. cultural advantage, as language and culture cannot be separated;
  3. children are better equipped to be sensitive to differences in others;
  4. children respond to different ways of social interactions;
  5. and carry traditional knowledge that is uniquely part of a particular culture.

What are the most effective language learning tools/techniques for primary school age children?

Edudemic recommends 16 sources for teaching a foreign language including:

  • tons of memorization and grammar drills (not the best method)
  • combining learning of a new language with acting or theatre
  • learning through song (music)
  • using games and activities
  • and more…
#raisingglobalchildren
Tracey Tullis, The Expat Experiment

Real Life Scenario, thanks to Tracey from the Expat Experiment:

Some language specialists believe there is a window of opportunity in childhood for learning a second language. Really young kids are able to hear and imitate sounds very well. Mimicking and parroting are common behaviors of primary school age children so it makes sense language learning would be easier to kids of this age. My husband and I wanted our son to learn Spanish as well as English. We found the most effective learning tools to be flash cards with pictures and words, cartoons or language learning DVDs in Spanish and finding opportunities for my son to hear Spanish spoken. He learned and retained words the best when he wanted to communicate with other children who spoke Spanish. The developmental benefits we’ve noticed so far include building confidence, improved vocabulary, better understanding of primary language, Here is a link to a post I wrote about language learning tools we love: http://expatexperiment.com/language-learning-tools/

Do you know a second language well enough to get by in another country? Which one?

We are seeking contributors for upcoming week discussions: join the discussion right now.

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31 Comments
    1. Athena, I feel your pain. I was utterly dismayed to learn our local school district offer limited foreign language, but no foreign exchange or study abroad program. I recall as a young student that being one of the best parts of joining a foreign language club. And many school districts, as you mention, have cut programs all together. It’s heart-breaking.

  1. I am thankful that my daughter knows two languages. She was born deaf so sign language is her native language and she also knows English. I am hoping that my older son will be able to take sign language in a few years. We shall see since it isn’t offered at all of the schools yet. I think it should be so that there are enough interpreters available to the deaf community.
    Uplifting Families recently posted…5 Tips To Help Your Baby Sleep Well During Summer TravelsMy Profile

    1. Sign language is something I learned as a child by my grandmother. Then I never used it until I had a family member whose first language was sign language. I’ve struggled to become fluent enough to intelligently engage, but I am working on it. I’ve had a long time staffer who is fluent in American Sign Language. She has been a Godsend in several situations.

    1. Becca, learning a new language is definitely not the easiest thing to do unless you are immersed in that culture, surrounded by people speaking it daily. Your son will probably pick it up easier due to his youth. Here’s to hoping.

    1. Keri, the globe is getting smaller and smaller. Being able to relate to other cultures and not just expect them to relate to ours will become more and more pertinent as the next generation grows up. I do not think we (Americans) can afford to be so gauche any longer.

  2. I started teaching my daughter Japanese. Of course we lived in Japan for four years (she’s 5yr old), so she has done well at picking up the language. Now that we are back living in the US, we are continuing with learning Japanese and try not to forget what little Japanese we both know. I have also been giving her a few French lessons here and there as well. Love this article!
    Jamie @ Life of Creed recently posted…Special Deal Monday!!!! Craftsman Bolt-on Drill/driverMy Profile

  3. What a great post! My daughter is Vietnamese and we speak both languages to her in our house. She is only 2 but can say a ton of Vietnamese words already and understand them as well. I also taught her to count 1-7 in Spanish. I feel like they are sponges at this age and intend to take full advantage of how easy it is for them to learn/pick up things right now :)
    Linh
    http://abeautifulrawr.com

    1. Laurel, I picked up portuguese as an adult. I find I become rusty a lot faster as an adult. Yet, the French and Spanish I learned as a child seems to come back to me the moment I’m in a french-speaking or spanish-speaking country. Hoping my portugueses sticks. I’ve been working on it.

      How was it to learn Italian? That is on my radar.

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