Benefits of Learning a Second Language & Tips

By Andrew Yearick, Spanish Teacher
We’ve all heard the truism that the best time to learn a new language is as a child. With the neural pathways still being built, young kids are primed to learn language. When learning their native language, children are immersed in the language and pick up vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation through context and repetition. Linguists seem to all agree that immersion is the best way to learn (it’s how we all learned our native language).

However, for second-language acquisition, it’s difficult to create that sort of environment, unless you send your child to a dedicated language school or move to another country, of course.

Pilgrim is not a language school, but students do start learning Spanish early-in PreK-and it extends throughout 8th grade. I meet with each class twice per week, and the instruction for the young kids does resemble an immersion classroom.

Our time consists of songs, games, puppets, and books in Spanish. However, fluency is not really the goal here, at least not at this point. Spanish instruction twice a week for one class period, even if it were immersion, is not enough to bring someone to the level of fluency.

  • By 1st grade, students are writing Spanish words, learning the alphabet, and reading basic sentences in Spanish
  • By 3rd grade they’re learning some (very) basic grammar rules to bring their knowledge of vocab to life
  • In 5th and 6th grade, they are reading language learning magazines in the target language, increasing their vocab, and looking at grammar in context
  • In 6-8th grade, they learn the verb patterns and some grammar rules to help them express themselves in the present, past, and future tenses. They also work collaboratively on culture and conversation projects. Many 8th graders will test into a higher level Spanish class in high school

If they won’t become fluent with these classes, what’s the point?

Well, according to the NEA (National Education Association), second language learning carries with it some definite benefits:

  • Language courses can boost mental agility and help with multitasking
  • Higher achievement on standardized tests
  • Improved reading ability
  • Better problem solving skills
  • Increased attention
  • Language study can open up the mind to other values and beliefs to create better cultural understanding

For me, the last one is the most important. Through language study, I want kids to see that people’s hopes, fears, dreams, and day to day dialogue share so much in common with our own. I want them to experience a bit of the frustration of not being able to say exactly what they intend in a foreign language. Through this experience, I hope they will learn to be more gracious with those who are trying to learn English as a second language. I also want to give them the sense of accomplishment that comes with being able to create linguistic connections, which form cultural bridges and windows into worlds they might not otherwise get to see.

Is it too late for my older child to learn another language? Is it too late for me?

You may have heard that you can’t achieve native-level proficiency in a language past age 10, that you will always have a “foreign” accent, or that adults of a certain age cannot become fluent in a new language. While the general consensus is that earlier is better, there is evidence to suggest that even native-like language levels can be achieved after 10. It’s just quite a bit harder. (Dollman, Kogan, and Weißman, 2019)

Here, I can use myself as an example. I didn’t start language learning until age 14 (German), and I didn’t start learning Spanish until age 16. So, kids who start learning another language in pre-Kindergarten are WAY ahead of where I started.

Native speakers are always impressed with my Spanish, and a little confused as to why my pale skin and blue eyes don’t come with an American accent. Now, I have an “ear” for language, no doubt (I speak German fluently and am conversational in French and Italian), but I believe my experience supports the idea that fluency can be achieved well past early childhood.

And even if a person never reaches true fluency, research shows that simply studying a new language can change the physical structure of the brain in children, adults, and the elderly alike (Li, Ligault, Litcofsky, 2014).

How can I support my child (or myself) at home?

Stream, baby, stream… One of my favorite things to do when language learning (I still do this) is to watch movies or TV shows in the target language. Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+ all give us access to so much visual content that comes with various language options. Language practice can be done in a few different ways, and each method carries its own merits.

  • Watch in the target language with no subtitles- This is like jumping into the deep end and learning to swim. Your child will have to work hard to understand, and will likely not catch most of the dialogue, BUT with visual content, there’s always the context to help, and the increased attention (if they don’t give up), will help a lot with pronunciation and comprehension.
  • Watch in the target language with subtitles in the target language. This will make the dialogue a little more accessible for students who can read, but it still will require a lot of attention.
  • Watch in the target language with English subtitles. The downside is that the student might ignore the target language and focus on the English, BUT they often will make connections with idiomatic expressions and words they’ve heard before in class. Plus, they’re still hearing the target language, which will likely improve pronunciation.
  • Watch in English with target language subtitles. This can be done with most shows, regardless of the origin, and it can help students identify words and phrases that they might have heard in class, drawing a connection in an authentic context.

Vocabulary building by labeling things at home (furniture, appliances, etc.) is always a fun collaborative activity you can do with your child, and can help them learn household vocabulary.

If economically feasible, Spanish-speaking nannies, au pairs, and other caregivers are great ways for the child to be exposed to the language authentically and to develop good listening comprehension and pronunciation skills.

There are plenty of apps out there that can support language learning. We use both IXL and Duolingo with the middle schoolers to support what we’re doing in class. I also use Duolingo to support my language learning. These apps should always be seen as a supplement and not a path to fluency in and of themselves. Apps can be great vocabulary builders.

The best thing you can do, however, is to remain positive about language learning. It’s a common tendency for parents to downplay language abilities or to claim ignorance. Learning a new language is difficult, and the more upbeat and engaged a parent remains, the more likely a child will want to learn.

Remember, if you can read this, you’ve already proven that you can become fluent in a language!

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