Multilingual myths: Is it ever too early for a child to learn a second language?

Before we had children, my husband and I talked about our hopes and dreams for them – like would-be-parents tend to do. Even without a child in our arms, we had clear visions for our family. And, one thing we both wanted was to raise multilingual children.

But, we knew it would be a bit more challenging for us. Why? Because we only speak English.

While we both studied a foreign language in school, we never reached fluency in our chosen languages – Spanish for my husband and French for me. And, we forgot a lot of our respective “second” languages over time. To this day, we both wish we were fluent in one or more languages.

Now, as adults, we know that being multilingual would have afforded us other opportunities in college, work and life in general. So, we wanted to give our children the opportunity to be fluent in one or more languages and, in some ways, also give them the world.

And, we wanted to do it as soon as possible – even before they uttered their first English words.

Learning a second language at just one years old

We signed our older son up for a Spanish-language “Parents & Tots” class for children ages one to three – as soon as he turned one years old. And, yes, it was before he was speaking more than 20 or so words in his “mother tongue.”

I was overjoyed about it.

Our son was learning Spanish. We were taking advantage of a fantastic program close to our home. And, I was learning a new language, too. But, people didn’t always look at it the same way my husband and I did.

At the time, people often asked us how our son could learn Spanish when he wasn’t even really “speaking” English. They seemed to think you could only learn to speak one language after you were fluently speaking another, with many people asking us if it was too early for our son to learn a second language.

But, I’m glad to say that is a multilingual myth. It’s never too early to learn a second language.

In fact, studies have shown that a child “who is exposed early in life to two languages achieves each and every milestone on the same timetable as the other language – and also on the same overall timetable as a monolingual child.”

Children are amazing. At a young age, they can master multiple languages, allowing them to think and talk in each language versus constantly translating back and forth between languages in their heads.

We were glad to seize upon the opportunity to point our son down a path of multilingualism as soon as possible – even as monolingual parents.

Seeing the benefits of early language learning 

We believed it was the best to start language learning as soon as possible with our first son, and we felt the same way when our second son was born. And, yes, we signed him up for his first language class when he turned one years old, too. The only difference was that at one point we switched from Spanish to French – without any difficulty at all.

Now, with our sons six and nine years old, we’re proud to say that their early language classes have paid off.

Today, our sons are enrolled at a French immersion school and spend all day learning in French – except during English class. And, with each passing day, their vocabulary increases and so does their confidence in speaking the French language. They’ve both passed me by ages ago – and I couldn’t be happier.

Right after our sons started at their current school, one of their teachers asked me if they had been enrolled in a language class at an early age. Why? Because, over the years, she’s been able to pick out the students who got an early start in language acquisition – especially if their parents don’t speak the language at home. And, our sons fit the bill.

Now that our sons are older, people no longer seem to question our decision to encourage our children to be multilingual. They can see for themselves that our children speak English and French with ease – even if they’re often hesitant to do so on command.

These days, the only question people tend to ask us is which language they’ll learn to speak next.

No matter what languages our sons choose to speak, what country they choose to study in, or where they choose to call home, we hope our sons feel prepared to find and make their own way in the world. And, maybe one day, our sons can share stories of how it all began thanks to taking a language class at just one years old.

Do you speak multiple languages? When did you start to introduce a second language to your children? How many languages would you like your children to be able to speak? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

You can find out about more multilingual myths that have been “busted” by 16 other bloggers across the globe at The Piri-Piri Lexicon.

If you liked this post, you also may be interested in reading my thoughts on if it’s ever better to learn to speak one language over another one and six simple ways to raise world citizens.

Multilingual Myth_RWC

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