Surprising reasons to teach your kids a foreign language.
If you live in America, being bilingual might not seem like a pressing necessity—after all, so many people all over the world speak English. Right?
But research shows that foreign language lessons pack brain benefits that cannot be achieved in any other way. “Brains try to translate words into images,” says Elizabeth Lunney, the co-founder and CEO of ABC Languages, a language learning center with offices in New York and California. “When you become bilingual… your brain begins to think in images.” This kind of activity has been proven to sharpen both memory and IQ. And kids have an advantage over adults when it comes to picking up a new language. “[They] acquire language, rather than learn it from scratch,” says Mandy Menaker, who is the marketing director for the language center Fluent City, which has offices throughout major cities on the East Coast. “As the brain is developing, it is much easier to not only learn new words but also train the brain and tongue to pronounce them correctly.” That means if your little one becomes bilingual at an early age, that part of the brain opens up—and stays open, says Lunney, which makes it easier for kids to learn another foreign language.
So which foreign language should you choose? “Pick a language that is going to make sense in your life,” says Lunney. She suggests Spanish, since the United States has a huge Spanish-speaking community, and it’s also easy to take a family vacation to a Spanish-speaking country. Bonus: it’s a foreign language that parents can also study with their kids.
On the other hand, if children learn a complicated language when they are young, it will be easier for them to learn a Romance language later. Among the languages that take the longest for a native English speaker to learn are Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, and Russian.
Mandarin is certainly a good choice, as it is the number-one most-spoken language in the world. Jamie Keyte, the creator of the Mandarin programs at St. Bernard’s School and the Buckley School in New York, and the founder and CEO of ZGT, a company that teaches Mandarin to children and adults, notes that learning Mandarin offers particularly good benefits for children. “There are a lot of studies that show learning Mandarin at a young age helps with your spatial awareness, because of character writing,” he says.
Mandarin is also a tonal language, which means that pronunciation of the words affects their meaning. The tonal aspect of Mandarin offers even more brain boosts: “If you’re learning French, you’re engaging one side of your brain, and if you’re singing, you’re engaging one side of your brain, but if you’re learning Mandarin, you’re engaging both of those sides.” Mandarin can also help children with their math homework, because of the way Mandarin counting works. “Children who learn it as a second language when they are young continue to do math in their head in Mandarin,” says Keyte.
Menaker says that in many industries, “it has become necessary to speak more than one language to have a competitive edge and be able to communicate with clients in an increasing globalized marketplace.” For that reason, it’s great to choose a language spoken in countries that have an economic relationship with the U.S., like Portuguese (Brazil), Russian (Russia), Mandarin (China), or Arabic (the Middle East). This may give children a boost in college and in their career.
Did your child learn a language when he or she was young? Which one? —Hally Wolhandler