A child would be considered a linguistic adult in his or her mother tongue at around age four.
What this means is that children can understand and produce meaningful sounds in a particular language by the time they are in kindergarten. If they are exposed to multiple languages, linguists have found that they would be able to master them easily at age four! This does not mean they have already acquired an extensive vocabulary by then, just that they can communicate meaningfully in those languages.
According to researchers, there is evidence showing that children should master their mother tongue by age twelve because, it is by understanding and concreting linguistic patterns, that children can develop their language further. From ages eight to twelve, average children would be able to understand linguistic patterns - say, sentence structure. That is because, at that age, the cortex is being developed. A good portion of the brain (in the cortex area) gets taken up by that first language during that period. The more fixed the patterns are, the harder it is to dislodge them.
Benefits of Bilingualism
A question that comes up for educators is whether bilingualism hinders intelligence.
Parents can breathe a sigh of relief to know that it is not the case! In fact, researchers have found that bilingual students "are far superior to monolinguals on both verbal and non-verbal tests of intelligence" (Bialystok, et. al.).
Bilingualism or multilingualism improves cognitive ability by increasing functional neuroplasticity. In other words, learning a new language helps you learn other things. Unfortunately, most bilinguals do not get to choose to be bilinguals. Circumstances as they grow up simply required them to acquire more than one language.
As such, it is all the more important for parents to actively seek ways to improve on developing more than one language in their children.
What Is Different About Bilingual Minds?
Childhood bilingualism hugely affects developing minds.
A study done by Peal and Lambert found that bilingual children performed better on a battery of tests, no matter if they were language-based or nonverbal spatial tasks. They especially outperformed monolinguists in symbol manipulation and reorganisation assignments.
Especially, bilinguals tend to have a more diversified set of mental abilities than monolinguals. They also demonstrate better executive control than monolinguals. That is, the control of working memory and attention span. In children, executive control is central to academic achievement. This advantage carries over to old age and protects individuals against cognitive decline (such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's).
What You Can Do To Help Your Child
No matter if you are bilingual yourself or not, you should actively cultivate multilingualism in your child and help them acquire new ways of communicating.
You don't have to be fluent in multiple languages but you can create an environment for your child to get exposed to different languages. Whether it be signing your child to a second language class or engaging with parents from another culture, it is important for your child to cultivate an interest in flexible communication.
ESF Language & Learning provides many online tools and resources available at your fingertips! Get your child actively engaged with other children from other cultures. Expose them to a different language, whether it be English, Chinese, Spanish, or Japanese.
By Iva Liu
Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: consequences for mind and brain. Trends in cognitive sciences, 16(4), 240–250. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2012.03.001
Cummins, J. (1992). Bilingualism and Second Language Learning. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 13, 50-70. doi:10.1017/S0267190500002397
Peal E, Lambert W. The relation of bilingualism to intelligence. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied. 1962;76:1–23.