Want to boost your child's test scores? Improve his focus? Give him an edge in the job market? Delay the potential onset of Alzheimer's in his later years? Consider introducing him to a foreign language, and sooner rather than later. "There are numerous benefits-social, cultural and cognitive in nature-that are associated with bilingualism," says Ellen Johnson Serafini, an assistant professor of Spanish Language Education at George Mason University (GMU). "We are living in a world that is increasingly global and, especially in our own country, quite multicultural. Being bilingual gives kids greater opportunities and a competitive edge."

6,900 Languages

Babies are born with the capacity to learn any of the 6,900 or so languages in the world. "Infants, in the first six months of life, are a blank slate, absorbing the sounds of the world around them," says Joel Gomez, chair of the Department of Education Leadership at George Washington University (GWU). Research shows that between six and eight months of age, infants raised in homes where only one language is spoken can hear vowels and consonants in all languages. The ability fades fast. By nine months, "sounds that they don't hear regularly, that aren't part of the language that surrounds them, are being pruned from the brain."

As the ability to recognize sounds not found in one's mother tongue diminishes, so does the prospect of speaking a second language without an accent. "By puberty, the likelihood of achieving native-like intonation and pronunciation sharply declines," says Johnson Serafini.

Because the palate loses flexibility as a child grows, it becomes harder to make certain sounds, says Karen Gould, director of education for Language Stars, which offers classes in the Washington, D.C., region for toddlers and their parents, as well as kids ages 3 to 10. For example, native English speakers, "may struggle to roll their 'R's' when speaking French."

That argues in favor of introducing a second language to a child as early as possible. Further bolstering the argument is research showing that "young children have a great ability to pick up sounds, structures and intonation patterns in a second language, as they did with their first," says Gould. "Unlike adults, who use their first language to access the second-in other words, how similar or different a language concept is when compared to English-younger children absorb a second language. They don't need to go through their first language to learn it."

Cognitive Flexibility

The brain power that develops from switching between languages is, according to researchers, what helps give bilingual children increased cognitive flexibility. The part of the brain that deals with executive function-which helps a child ignore distractions and focus on what is relevant- is strengthened each time a bilingual child must choose which language to use. That often translates into higher scores on standardized tests.

Because executive function also influences children's ability to regulate their emotions and impulses, bilinguals may be better able to control behaviors and engage socially, notes Gomez. "They tend to be more socially flexible and OK with things. When kids are exposed to a second language, they also become more tolerant. Studies have shown reduced bullying in bilingual classrooms as kids seem more equipped to handle ambiguity."

"When children learn a second language young, they develop metalinguistic skills that allow them to understand how language works. I don't necessarily mean grammatical structures but that phrases can be turned in different ways," says Gould. "This understanding transfers, as do literacy skills. As a result, reading and verbal skills go up."

Object Permanence

Young children who are exposed to two languages grasp certain concepts earlier, like that of object permanence. "They know that words are labels and that labels are arbitrary," says Gomez. They understand that what lights up the night sky remains the same whether it is called the moon, la lune or der Mond."

Because language and culture are intertwined, children who study a foreign language develop an expanded world view, according to Marty Abbott, executive director of the Alexandria-based American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). "Parents realize their children are growing up in a fundamentally different world…and that an appreciation of other cultures combined with a second language can ultimately advance careers and provide an edge in today's global environment."

For parents who speak only English, determining what language a young child should learn can seem daunting. But don't sweat it, say the experts. "For children in the midst of that window of opportunity, it's just as easy to learn to speak one language as it is another," says Gould. "As they get into reading and writing, Mandarin characters may be more difficult to learn than the Spanish alphabet."

"The particular language almost doesn't matter because children are so open," says Abbott. "We're seeing a real rise in interest in Chinese. As a nation, there's a history of wanting to learn the language of our economic competitors. In the 50s, it was Russian; in the 80s, Japanese. Now it's Chinese."

Parents should let community demographics help guide them, suggests Johnson Serafini. "If a majority of speakers of a language other than English use Spanish or Korean or Arabic, I would be inclined to consider that language." Part of the reason is the ability to expose a child to native speakers and the cultural resources-such as ethnic festivals and restaurants- that may be available. Parents looking to expose very young children to a native speaker may hire a full-time caregiver or occasional babysitter who speaks a language other than English.

Heritage Languages

Sometimes a heritage language makes sense. "If your parents are immigrants from Germany or Italy, you might want your child to be able to speak with them," says Johnson Serafini. Parents who have adopted children from overseas may want them to learn the language of their country of origin.

"What I tell parents is that any language is good and that an early start is best," says Beatrix Preusse-Burr, a world languages specialist with Fairfax County Public Schools. However, there are practical concerns. If a child attends a school outside of his neighborhood in order to study a specific language, "can parents sustain the commute?...We have families in the French immersion program with an hour and a half commute."

Recognizing that "language learning is not a luxury but a strategic imperative," according to Gould, educational institutions are responding. Many private schools in the area offer foreign language classes to students from preschool on up. There are even a few stand alone preschools that offer Spanish.

While virtually all public school students in the region can take a foreign language in middle and high school, a limited number of elementary students in the District and Fairfax and Montgomery counties are accepted through a lottery into immersion programs.

"Our goal is communicative competence," says Preusse-Burr . But, "even after four years of foreign language instruction [in high school], most students are still novice speakers. They do well in structured settings, but when out in the real world, they break down." Starting early not only allows young children to learn a language more naturally but to use it for an extended period of time.

Foreign Language Options

Elementary students not enrolled in immersion programs do have foreign language options. FLES (Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools) offers classes, before and after the school day, at many local public schools. These classes serve to introduce a child to the language during that window of opportunity for learning but do not, in and of themselves, result in fluency. "It's amazing how much children can learn once a week in a program that meets every week, all year long," says Kirsten Sonderegger Rhodes, program director for Big Learning Foreign Language: FLES in Silver Spring. FLES relies on trained teachers who are native speakers to provide a solid foundation for continued language learning.

Native Speakers

Exposure to a native speaker is instrumental if a child is to acquire a native-like accent, says Abbott. For best progress, ACTFL recommends instruction "two to three times a week that is content-based. It shouldn't be just numbers, colors, songs and dancing around," she says. "It should be related to concepts students are learning in the general education program."

It also helps if children are able to continue with a language throughout their school careers, should they so choose. "We try to make sure that when we offer Chinese, for example, that the school feeds into a middle school that offers the language," says Sonderegger Rhodes.

While students who wait until middle or high school to learn a second language will acquire it differently than younger children and may have greater difficulty with accents, they can become bilingual. Their progress may be more rapid due to the cognitive and academic skills they have developed. No matter when a child starts speaking a language, he "will need to learn the vocabulary and grammar, which takes memorization and practice," says Sonderegger Rhodes, so the ability to have a hand in choosing the language he wants to study may motivate and inspire him.

A second language also may play a role in his college admission. Three to four years of a language is not an uncommon requirement, according to Abbott. "The admission process considers whether a student will be successful at the school and stay. With a foreign language, colleges are looking to see if a student can stick with a subject," she says.

At GMU, Caroline R. Davis, assistant director of admissions concurs.

Acknowledging that requirements vary by institution and a student's desired major, she notes that GMU looks for "three years of one language or two years of two different languages….It shows that a student is familiar with other cultures, which is important to us. We are such a global community, with 140 countries represented on our campus."

Once a child has become bilingual, retaining that ability through regular use of the second language may serve to protect his brain function as he ages. "Studies in the bilingual population on Alzheimer's and other brain degenerative diseases shows delays in onset by many years," says Preusse-Burr.

For those who allow their second language to hibernate in adulthood, all is not lost. "We have this amazing capacity to retain language," says Gould. "If you re-engage later in life, you can pick back up more quickly. You may have forgotten some vocabulary and some skills may be buried in the back of the closet. But, you retain the metalinguistic skills and accent. Brushing up takes some effort but it is worth it."


Karen Finucan Clarkson is a Bethesda-based freelance writer and the mother of three sons, ages 15-23.