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But… they’re ONLY babies!

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I recall few months ago, I saw a mom checking out a poster for our Toc Toc classes, and she read it out loud to her friend she was with: “Look at this. Spanish for babies and toddlers”, and she added, “That’s hilarious!”. Her friend replied “I know, what are they going to learn?”. Ouch. Since we’re in New York and it’s etiquette to not get into other’s conversations, I didn’t say a word. (Or should’ve I? Hmm…) Anyway, here I am, saying in this post what I wish I could have said to those moms, and to everyone, about babies and toddlers learning a second language.

I recall a few months ago, I saw a mom checking out a poster for our Toc Toc classes, and she read it out loud to her friend she was with: “Look at this. Spanish for babies and toddlers”, and she added, “That’s hilarious!”. Her friend replied, “I know, what are they going to learn?”. Ouch. Since we’re in New York and it’s etiquette to not get into other’s conversations, I didn’t say a word. (Or should’ve I? Hmm…) Anyway, here I am, saying in this post what I wish I could have said to those moms, and to everyone, about babies and toddlers learning a second language.

Before starting with the list of “Why’s”, just remember… teaching little ones a second or third language is being done all over the world. We’re not reinventing the wheel. In Spain, small children are being taught Spanish plus Catalan, Valencian or Basque. In India, people teach their kids Hindi and a second language since they’re little. Your neighbors could be teaching their kids English and Russian, or Greek, or Italian (or all of them!). The key is to teach them when they’re still little.

There are a lot of scientific articles around -I’ll add some links in this post. Just keeping it short and sweet: It’s disproportionately easier to teach a baby or toddler two languages at once, than teaching a second language to a three-year-old, when he or she is already fluent in their first language. The way I picture this: it’s like knitting a two-colored scarf. You can definitely start with one color, and then embroider the second thread on top of the first one. Or you can just grab two threads and knit them together at the same time, from the beginning.

Ok. And why is way easier to learn before the age of three? First reason: after 8 months old, we as humans start differentiating the sounds of our culture. Each language uses a unique set of sounds. Spanish “L” is different from English “L”. Slavic languages have a set of different “SH” sounds that I personally don’t distinguish one from another. Scientists now know babies are born with the ability to distinguish all of those sounds, but that ability starts weakening even before they start talking, by their first birthday. Studies have proven that 7-month-old in Tokyo and a 7-month-old in Seattle respond equally well to the “L” and “R” sounds of English. But by 11 months, the Japanese infant had lost a lot of that ability. Sure thing, we think “My baby doesn’t even talk yet”, but their listening skills are being shaped and that’s why this is such a crucial age to introduce them to foreign sounds. Watch this amazing TED Talk where they explain this.

Second reason. Babies can learn two languages as fast as one, according to NBC News. “It is remarkable that babies being raised bilingual — by simply speaking to them in two languages — can learn both in the time it takes most babies to learn one. On average, monolingual and bilingual babies start talking around age 1 and can say about 50 words by 18 months.” Babies are completely capable to learn two languages at the same time. Songs have two parts: music and lyrics. We don’t separate them when we listen to a song. Just like that, we don’t have to separate we’re capable to learn two languages at the same time, it’s not way more complicated.

I must confess: I do think Spanish is terribly difficult. So many tenses, so many synonyms, we speak too fast, there’s so much slang, rolling “r’s” is almost impossible for non-natives… This is exactly why we should teach our children Spanish when “they’re JUST babies.” They don’t know that something is difficult. A toddler wants a dragon for his birthday. Or a baby wants grandpas to come over for dinner even if they live two layovers away. Being a kid is having a natural superpower of not having limits nor fears. They’re not scared of messing their pronunciation. They don’t fear if “they’re going to fail at this”. Learning is not boring but it’s fun. And that’s why we should embrace and encourage them to learn a second language when they’re still as fearless as they are.

Before starting with the list of “Why’s”, just remember… teaching little ones a second or third language is being done all over the world. We’re not reinventing the wheel. In Spain small children are being taught Spanish plus Catalan, Valencian or Basque. In India, people teach their kids Hindi and a second language since they’re little. Your neighbors could be teaching their kids English and Russian, or Greek, or Italian (or all of them!). The key is to teach them when they’re still little.

There are a lot of scientific articles around -I’ll add some links in this post. Just keeping it short and sweet: It’s disproportionately easier to teach a baby or toddler two languages at once, than teaching a second language to a three year old, when he or she is already fluent in their first language. The way I picture this: it’s like knitting a two-colored scarf. You can definitely start with one color, and then embroider the second thread on top of the first one. Or you can just grab two threads and knit them together at the same time, from the beginning.

Ok. And why is way easier to learn before the age of three? First reason: after 8 months old, we as humans start differentiating the sounds of our culture. Each language uses a unique set of sounds. Spanish “L” is different than English “L”. Slavic languages have a set of different “SH” sounds that I personally don’t distinguish one from another. Scientists now know babies are born with the ability to distinguish all of those sounds, but that ability starts weakening even before they start talking, by the first birthday. Studies have proven that 7-month-old in Tokyo and a 7-month-old in Seattle respond equally well to the “L” and “R” sounds of English. But by 11 months, the Japanese infant had lost a lot of that ability. Sure thing, we think “My baby doesn’t even talk yet”, but their listening skills are being shaped and that’s why this is such a crucial age to introduce them to foreign sounds. Watch this amazing TED Talk where they explain this.

Second reason. Babies can learn two languages as fast as one, according to NBC News. “It is remarkable that babies being raised bilingual — by simply speaking to them in two languages — can learn both in the time it takes most babies to learn one. On average, monolingual and bilingual babies start talking around age 1 and can say about 50 words by 18 months.” Babies are completely capable to learn two languages at the same time. Songs have two parts: music and lyrics. We don’t separate them when we listen to a song. Just like that, we don’t have to separate we’re capable to learn two languages at the same time, it’s not way more complicated.

I must confess: I do think Spanish is terribly difficult. So many tenses, so many synonyms, we speak too fast, there’s so much slang, rolling “r’s” is almost impossible for non-natives… This is exactly why we should teach our children Spanish when “they’re JUST babies.” They don’t know that something is difficult. A toddler wants a dragon for his birthday. Or a baby wants grandpas to come over for dinner even if they live two layovers away. Being a kid is having a natural super power of not having limits nor fears. They’re not scared of messing their pronunciation. They don’t fear if “they’re going to fail at this”. Learning is not boring but it’s fun. And that’s why we should embrace and encourage them to learn a second language when they’re still as fearless as they are.



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