Why Teaching Kids Multiple Languages Must Start Earlier

“I will only speak to you in Bengali,” my dad said to me in our mother tongue.

I was nine years old, and we had just moved to Los Angeles from Calcutta a month prior. The school year had recently begun, and I was immediately enrolled in English as Second Language (ESL) classes.

I had to, and wanted to, learn English as quickly as possible. The last thing I wanted was to keep speaking in Bengali—or Hindi, or Telugu—at home. We had moved around a lot in India, affording me the chance to learn multiple languages before moving to the U.S. Now I wanted to speak English and felt it would be more difficult to learn it if I continued to speak a language I already knew.

At the time my dad knew what I’ve now experienced—a developing child can learn multiple new languages at a remarkable rate. (Even if he continues to speak his native language at home.)

The linguistic genius of a child has been researched extensively. Patricia Kuhl, a professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences and co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington, described at TEDxRainier the depth in which babies register what they hear.

She explained that during the production of speech, a baby is able to listen and take “statistics on the language that they hear.” In her example, a child is learning both Japanese and English. She points out the vast differences in the languages force a child to absorb those language statistics and appropriately flip between the two.

Up until the late 1960s, many people believed bilingual children may deal with language delay. Though that argument remains, modern research has suggested it to be false as “monolingual and bilingual children meet major language developmental milestones at similar times,” according to a 2006 report at the Center for Applied Linguistics.

I kept my proficiency in Bengali while learning English because I was still young enough to absorb all the language statistics and flip back and forth depending on the situation. Becoming proficient in Spanish after four years of high school was a much more arduous process for me. But it was still exponentially easier as someone who already had roots in multiple languages compared to a monolinguist trying to learn a brand new language at 16 years of age.

The most recent American Councils for International Education survey estimated that 10.6 million K-12 students in the United States are studying a world language or American Sign Language. That’s just one in five kids.

Now add in the fact that most of those kids learning a second language are doing so in high school or after–once their brains are largely developed. It’s a much less conducive situation to efficiently learn something new.

Language forces the human brain to use both the left and right sides, or hemispheres. And because a child’s brain is yet to have that rigid lateralization, he or she can learn languages more easily. Adults, on the other hand, are forced to use just one side of the brain—usually the left— to learn a new language.

Referring back to Kuhl’s explanation of a developing brain learning multiple languages, a bilingual brain lets you view the world differently. A developing baby, thanks to a brain that has yet to be fully formed and lateralized, takes in multiple languages and is transformed from a citizen “of the world to the culture-bound listeners that we are.” Adults, on the other hand, are “governed by the representation in memory” and are unable to absorb new language statistics as easily.

The public school system, at the K-12 and university level, must look into having its foreign language class offerings earlier in a child’s development. A child who speaks multiple languages may not necessarily be smarter than his or her monolinguist counterpart, but studies do suggest their brains are healthier.

There’s a Czech proverb that says you live a life for every language you speak. Why not start that process earlier?