“Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I learn.”
While it is possible to become proficient in a second language at any age, if multiple languages are introduced from childhood—preferably at infancy—they are acquired effortlessly. It is said that babies who are exposed to two or more languages from birth have a higher chance of being bilingual. So why is it easier for babies?
Research suggests that babies are attuned to sounds and languages even before they are born, and they can differentiate at least 800 sounds in their first year of life. Therefore, babies can learn any language they are exposed to during that time. That is just incredible! Babies will figure out who is talking what and what they are saying—especially if it’s their mother who’s talking. If multiple languages are used in the household, they won’t be confused, as some people may believe.
Does that mean babies will become bilingual if they are exposed to languages just like that? Yes, but only with quality exposure and consistency if your goal is to raise your child as a bilingual. Starting early with consistent language input will cultivate the importance of the minority language and show them who uses which language. It will become natural for you or the caregiver to use that language and further provide a need for the child to communicate in the language
In my case, my child acquired the minority language and dominant language simultaneously from birth. As a baby he was exposed to the minority language by mommy and daddy and the dominant language by his grandparents. When he got older, he was able to communicate in both languages.
How can children benefit from being bilingual? Over the years, studies have shown the advantages of being bilingual. As parents, we want to give our children everything that will add to their cognitive development. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association outlined several benefits of bilingualism for babies and young children. Some these are strong rhyming skills, the ability to learn new words faster, improved ability to learn new information, and strong problem-solving skills.
While cultivating bilingual competence have several advantages intellectually, it is also an important way to pass on your heritage. Language is part of your identity. For me, it makes me who I am. Communicating with your child in the minority language will help pass down your culture, norms and values (which I believe our children will appreciate when they get older).
In addition to passing down your culture, you are also teaching them from birth to be open-minded. When we teach our children a language, we give then new ways of looking at the world and their surroundings. Open-minded people are willing to accept different perspectives and world views. This trait is important to cultivate in children, given the current political and social climate around the world.
As a parent who has been raising a child to understand two languages, I know that one thing that will give you lots of joy is when your child responds verbally in the minority language. If have an infant or are thinking of having children in the future and want them to be bilingual, then it is best to introduce the minority language early in their lives.