Growing up Multilingual
I live in Turkey, and when I first started learning Turkish, I took private lessons in the home of a man who was married to an English woman. They had twin girls, six years old, who spoke both perfect English and perfect Turkish. “I speak only Turkish with them, and my wife speaks only English with them,” he told me. “They speak Turkish all day at school and wherever else they go, but at home we buy them English books to read, and they watch American television channels by satellite.”
I asked him if the girls ever got confused or had problems with their speech. “Never,” he replied. “When they’re talking to each other they switch back and forth somewhat, but when a person approaches them speaking one language or the other, they know exactly what to do. It comes naturally.”
This confirmed something I had observed before. I grew up in an area where many families were bilingual (English/Spanish), and I never noticed any of the bilingual children having issues because of their multiple languages. In fact, they seemed to have a lot of advantages over kids who only spoke one language. For example, they always understood everything that was said to them, no matter who said it. It will also help later in life — people in charge of hiring, in any field, will always see a bilingual employee as an asset.
Nonetheless, parents seem to worry about whether taking on a second language too early could be harmful to their children’s speech development, or just be too hard for them to learn. I’ve heard parents say that they want to wait until their child is “old enough” to learn a second language. They’re worried that a young child isn’t ready to handle memorizing vocabulary or conjugating verbs.
But the truth is, that isn’t how children learn languages anyway. The younger a child is, the more their brain is still open to accepting new sounds and naturally associating them with meaning. This is how we learn our native languages when we’re babies. As we get older, our brains get more hard-wired into the sounds we’ve already learned, and they less readily accept new language information. This is why we have to actively study a new language as adults, even if we are immersed in the sounds of that new language. With each passing year after birth, it gets harder and harder to learn languages in a natural way. Any time before age 10 is a good time to start, but the sooner a child can begin learning multiple languages, the better. If they can be exposed to more than one language from birth, they have the greatest chance of being fluent in two or more languages, much greater than if they start years later.
My Turkish teacher has now arranged an informal exchange program with a Japanese family in his neighborhood. For two nights a week, his girls are immersed in Japanese over at the neighbor’s house, and the Japanese children are immersed in English at his house. They’ve only been doing this six months, and already the girls’ Japanese is quite passable, and they speak without a hint of a foreign accent. They’re even learning to read and write. At this pace, they’ll be fluent within a couple of years. Most adults who want to learn Japanese spend years or even decades trying to master the language, and most are unsuccessful. The lesson is clear: if you want your kids to be multilingual, don’t wait for them to be old enough — get them started as soon as possible.