I have met a lot of people since the start of Academicus - The English Academy for Kids: mothers, teachers, even pediatricians, here in Switzerland, who claim that speaking more than one language to a child will confuse them and that the most important thing to focus on, is teaching the mother-tongue. Only. As much as I appreciate the concern for our younger generations, I couldn't disagree more with such an approach.
I was raised bilingually: my parents and teachers never asked me if I wanted to learn an additional language. Our family had moved from Poland to Australia, and from one day to the next, I was sent to an Aussie kindergarten. At kindergarten all the kids spoke an odd language I couldn't seem to understand: English. Within a matter of weeks, I picked up and started using that odd language myself (much to the relief of my mum and the teachers) and began teaching it to my younger sister at home. I was 4 at the time. My sister was 2.
To the best of our knowledge, neither she nor I have suffered from any detrimental side-effects of bilingualism.
Today, thanks to the advancements in technology, medical sciences, language studies, globalisation and inter-connectedness, the evidence is stronger than ever before:
Bilingualism is beneficial to anyone who embraces it.
The graph below explains some of the advantages of bilingualism:
Pretty convincing, isn't it? All the more reason to expose children to foreign languages at a young age. You see, the problem with us adults, is that we need to put in a lot of conscious work, effort, blood and sweat until we master a foreign language - it's a toilsome uphill struggle that lasts many years and rarely do we achieve native-like fluency.
Children however, have a remarkable capacity of learning languages spontaneously, through their environment.
In the "Critical Period" (ages 0-5) children are able to learn a second language that is qualitatively as good is their first.
Why is it then, that in Switzerland foreign language teaching is formally introduced in the 3rd grade (aged 8), so well after the Critical Period?
This is when parents step into the picture. It is through the parents' conscious decision of supporting and boosting language acquisition, and exposing their child to foreign languages that their youngsters will have the opportunity to excel in the future and master second and third languages as native speakers do.
My recommendation isn't that every child should go to a bilingual play-group, kindergarten or school. Instead, why not consider exposing children to the sounds, rhythms and mentality of foreign languages by signing your kids up for extra-curricular classes (no, they do not have to be the 'typical' classroom-lessons, but rather workshops, sports classes or other activities lead in a different language). You will be surprised how quickly kids pick up foreign languages.
I observe it every time I have classes with my Swiss students. Through a variety of games, creative activities and songs my students demonstrate an incredible skill of picking up words, expressions, sounds and melodies. I find myself sighing in those moments, wishing I still had that same capacity!