Multilingual mites: how toddlers can excel at picking up new languages
Olivia Ng signed up her 10-month-old baby girl for French lessons a year ago. It was obvious that her daughter was having fun, and that was all Ng and her husband cared about.
“It’s a kind of play for her,” Ng says. “We never questioned whether she was learning this or that. One time, we were in the car and she suddenly started saying the days of the week in French, going from Monday to Friday, and we were so surprised.”
Ng and her husband are Hong Kong Chinese, and French is a third language for their daughter.
There is a general myth that learning too many languages might confuse a child. But Ng is among a number of Hong Kong parents unfazed by such beliefs; she appreciates that French lessons are available for children at such a young age.
Another parent, Natalie Cheng, has had her 17-month-old son taking lessons for the past 10 months.
Apart from learning from a native French teacher, her son is also coming into contact with other students who are from mainland Chinese, French or other cultural backgrounds. There is greater diversity within the group than there would be at a regular Hong Kong playgroup.
“My son is not afraid to interact with foreigners,” Cheng says.
There are practical considerations too. Cheng would like her son to be able to read French in due course.
“We want him to explore more languages, which favour his future academic or even career development,” she says.
Another Hong Kong parent, Anita Shum, started to teach Mandarin to her two sons from when they started to be able to recognise languages.
There is no confusion for the child, Shum says, as long as each adult in a child’s life speaks only one language to the child. The child learns that speaking a language is a way to communicate with that one person. This is a practice adopted by all the parents and teachers interviewed for this article.
“When a new student joined my son’s school from mainland China and spoke only Mandarin, my son was able to help translate a few things in conversation,” she recalls. “They became buddies immediately.”
On a family vacation in Korea, her sons were able to use Mandarin to engage in some basic communication with the locals, thanks to the popularity of Chinese learning in Korea.
Her sons’ experiences convinced Shum of the importance and usefulness of learning Mandarin – to such an extent that she decided to found a language school, Mini Mandarins, which teaches the language and introduces Chinese culture to toddlers from as young as 18 months old.
Today, about 60 per cent of students at Shum’s language school are learning Mandarin as a third language.
Shum believes that picking up a new language can be a relaxing activity for young children, unlike other skills which may require focused study.
“There are leisurely ways to learn a language, such as listening to songs,” she says. “There are also subconscious ways. For instance, every evening at dinner we watch Mandarin cartoons on TV, while normally my kids don’t watch TV.”
Shum encourages parents to expose their toddlers to other languages at the same time as they are learning their mother tongue.
“If you wait till primary school age, it may be too late,” she says. “The child is already reading advanced books in the mother tongue. At this point, he or she may be reluctant to communicate in a new language, and speaking simple sentences could be a struggle.”
Viviane Tran, founder of language school My Little French, has been teaching French to young children in Hong Kong since 2012.
The majority of her students are under five years old, and many are babies, including the children of Ng and Cheng.
Tran has found babies and toddlers benefit from being exposed to new languages in several ways. One is in grasping pronunciation.
“They catch sounds that as adults we wouldn’t get,” she says. “If they hear a lot [of a language], they will be able to catch different pronunciation and accents.”
Perhaps more importantly, babies and toddlers exposed to new languages are able to develop mental dexterity.
“It is like gymnastics switching from one language to another. Babies learn like a sponge and we really see it in language classes,” she says.
Nearly 70 per cent of students at My Little French are Chinese who are acquiring French as a third language. Others are either from mixed families or from other nationalities.
So what is the secret to helping a baby learn a third language? Tran recommends patience, repetition and not overloading the child with too much information.
Parents need to allow time for the child to pick up a new language, especially when he or she is taking only one or two hours of language classes a week.
“Children learn by listening, so I repeat, repeat and repeat again the same things,” she says, adding that she may read the same story book to a baby for months.
“By seeing books, they learn by listening sentences and vocabulary. The learning is implicit.”
At the pre-school age, there is no need to introduce the child to too many topics.
“If a kid has too much information to assimilate, he will just pick the one topic he likes and give up [on the] others,” she says. “[He might think] ‘I’ll learn the transport vocabulary and that’s it’.”