Educational institutions and parents aim to introduce foreign language learning as early as possible. This trend is associated with the natural predisposition of children to learn languages. Children’s improved mastering of a foreign language is observed as an advantage over adults. The sensitivity of children before secondary school to mastering languages is noted. This fact may be related to children’s curiosity and interest in new information. The learning of a second language in early childhood is much faster than in later stages of learning. With age, the human psyche loses its flexibility, the possibilities of auditory perception and articulation apparatus decrease, and memory deteriorates. The advantages of learning a second language in early childhood include the flexibility of children’s perception and psyche, possibility to assimilate new knowledge through contact, as well as the unconsciousness of learning. The aspects that hinder the development of a foreign language in childhood include a low concentration of attention and quick memorization, accompanied by quick forgetting.
Benefits of Learning a Second Language as a Child
The psychological flexibility of the children’s brain allows them to exist in a much smaller number of frames and prohibitions than an adult. The fear of making a mistake and looking bad in the eyes of others is an obstacle that children do not have. The process of teaching young children is devoid of punishment for errors, and no one places high demands on them in terms of language competence. The ability to fully master a foreign speech and reproduce it with the accent of a native speaker is available to children who start learning a language early, because their brain quickly forms neural connections. Later in life, these neural connections, created by the brain for efficiency, cause people to return to the sounds of the languages they already know. It is thanks to the flexibility of the brain and the rapid formation of the nervous system that children are able to learn languages at a faster pace.
Assimilation through Contact
Young children are not formally taught the language in the same way as adults and older children. They learn by immersing themselves in the language environment and absorbing the language through contact. Casual learning involves games and songs, not verb conjugations, and memorizing exceptions to rules. In fact, adults also learn much faster through immersion, but language immersion requires effort, and time, which is not always enough.
A significant advantage of learning a second language at an early age lies in the fact that children learn the language naturally. Children perceive language as a means of communication and a process that is as close as possible to speaking in their native language. The use of a game technique in the educational process provides a possibility to make any language unit valuable for communication, thus increasing the child’s motivation for learning.
Unconsciousness of Learning
The ability to master the language intuitively is the main advantage of preschoolers, which disappears with the onset of adolescence. For a child, there is no particular activity for learning a language; it happens unconsciously and naturally. When adults learn a foreign language, they constantly have to answer the question of how applicable expressions are in context and how grammar works. It takes a lot of time and fruitless effort to explain the functioning of a foreign language. The main barrier for adults learning a second language is establishing logical connections between their native language and a foreign language. There is simply no answer to why the language is arranged this way and not otherwise. Adults try to understand language mechanics, while children unconsciously learn it.
Drawbacks of Learning a Second Language as a Child
Low Concentration of Attention
For successful language acquisition, the excellent linguistic abilities of a person are far from a decisive factor. However, some studies show that age-related achievement effects are overshadowed by other products, leading to different outcomes depending on individual differences and contextual effects (Pfenninger and Singleton 207). One of the most important criteria for success in learning a second language is the ability to focus. Children have all the signs of a low concentration of attention: fast speech, fussiness, and emotionality. Children often overcome these barriers only by adolescence when the valuable skills of quickly grasping a new language are lost. Children tend to speak quickly, whether they speak their native language or a foreign language. This can lead to the memorization of distorted foreign words and structures. If this barrier occurs, the child may be helped by playful learning or concentration exercises.
The child quickly forgets what he has learned and quickly captures new words and grammatical structures. This process is associated with the presence of constant new impressions and new experiences, which displaces the previously learned. Nevertheless, forgetting is a psychologically necessary process, which is initially associated with the economy of effort (Bjork et al. 164). Forgetting is a natural process required to save the brain from information overload.
All foreign language learners agree that a language without practice is forgotten. Naturally, a language that a person does not use becomes unnecessary. However, an excessive skill loses accuracy but never completely disappears from memory. The same applies to children: despite the ease of losing information, it remains in the bowels of consciousness, and it is not too challenging to reactivate it. The more mechanical the process of fixing information in memory, the faster the forgetting would be. Therefore, when teaching children, it is necessary to avoid mechanization of language learning as much as possible, giving preference to game forms and natural assimilation, excluding automatic learning.
Despite the desire of most learners of a second language to speak at the level of a native speaker, this happens very rarely. The most likely scenario for mastering a foreign language at the level of the native one is learning it from an early age. Bilingualism is the ability to speak two languages at the native level. There are many classifications, and types of bilingualism, one of the main ones is according to age and language acquisition method. Bilingualism can be natural, that is, congenital and acquired. Acquired bilingualism differs from the sequential learning of a language along the path of mastering information. Bilinguals perceive the language through the prism of immersion in the culture of the native speaker of the language being studied.
Natural bilingualism occurs when a child absorbs two languages from birth. This usually happens in international families in which parents have different mother tongues. To create a bilingual environment in an international family, each parent must communicate with the child in their native language, even if they are fluent in a foreign language.
Benefits of Bilingualism
Bilingualism in children, in general, can be characterized chiefly positively. In addition to the obvious advantage of knowing two languages at the same high level, there are other benefits. Bilingual children have advantages in terms of social interaction, flexibility of thinking, and understanding of language structure. Abstract thinking in bilinguals develops earlier, faster, and better than in monolinguals. Bilinguals outperform monolinguals on tasks with mixed visual and verbal information. Their abilities develop more actively when the brain launches higher cognitive processes for solving problems, expanding memory and mental activity (Yu and Schwieter 366). To be bilingual means to have extraordinary cognitive abilities. Natural bilinguals form a dual picture of the world from childhood, as they learn the socio-cultural norms, history, and mentality of two linguistic societies.
Problems of bilingualism
Despite the apparent advantages of natural bilingualism, there are specific problems. Bilinguals often have difficulty interpreting words with similar roots with different meanings in two languages. Bilinguals have to think twice, depending on the language and context used, before using a seemingly familiar word. In addition, bilinguals often have difficulty writing very similar but slightly different words in two languages. Bilingualism in young children also does not always run smoothly. Parents may get scared when they notice that the child has begun to mix languages; this usually happens at 3-4 years. When bilingual children enter a period of mixing languages, they, as a rule, answer the adult in the language in which they were addressed but insert in response words from another language that are similar in meaning but easier to pronounce.
Overcoming Problems Associated with Learning a Second Language in Childhood
The main problems of language learning in early childhood were insufficient attention concentration, quick forgetting, and the bilingual issues of mixing two languages. There are several ways to make it easier for young children to learn a second language to overcome the above points. Most of them are based on the advantage of children over adults in terms of the ease of assimilation of new information. Most modern methods are based on the game form of teaching children a foreign language. Since children’s motivation to learn a foreign language is significantly lower than in adults, learning by playing fills this gap, making the child interested. In response to the problem of low concentration of attention, classes are recommended to be carried out more often but less temporarily so that the child can remain concentrated. The issue of quick forgetting is solved by more frequent, unobtrusive, non-mechanized repetition of the learned material. Parents need to speak with children in their own languages to prevent mixing two languages in the children’s minds, but this problem mostly disappears as bilinguals grow up.
Thus, there are significant benefits of learning a second language in early childhood. These benefits are associated with children’s ease of learning new information, the flexibility of the brain and psyche, and the ability to learn new material through unconscious memorization. Bilingual children also face specific challenges, but all of them can be overcome with due effort. The advantage of learning a second language early is a greater likelihood of mastering it and the development of intercultural connections and logical thinking, as well as strengthening the child’s cognitive abilities.
Bjork, Robert A., and Elizabeth L. Bjork. “Forgetting as the friend of learning: implications for teaching and self-regulated learning.” Advances in Physiology Education, vol. 43, no.2, 2019, pp. 164-167. h
Pfenninger, Simone E., and David Singleton. “Starting age overshadowed: The primacy of differential environmental and family support effects on second language attainment in an instructional context.” Language Learning, vol. 69, no. 1, 2019, pp. 207-234.
Yu, Ziying, and John W. Schwieter. “Recognizing the effects of language mode on the cognitive advantages of bilingualism.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol 9., no. 1, 2018, pp. 366-372.