Once upon a time, in the not too distant past, parents and educators feared bilingualism in children. There was the myth that children would be confused, do less well academically, and even have mental health problems as a direct result of speaking multiple languages. This was despite an experiment in 1962 which actually showed that bilingual children performed better academically.
Since then, research has gone much further, conducted by linguists, psychologists, neurologists and neuroscientists. What they have uncovered is that there are a plethora of advantages bestowed upon the bilingual child.
A child’s educational journey is a marathon, not a sprint. In fact, it isn’t even confined to the window between when they learn their ABC’s to the day they throw a mortarboard in the air. Learning is a lifelong journey.
However, in modern society and educational systems, learning has become synonymous with education alone. Forcing learning in to the confines of an educational system means that it’s fairly easy to learn purely because of an extrinsic motivator: assessments and exams.
Whilst this is often seen as important for academic and career success, it poses some difficulties. With learning being a marathon, not a sprint, maintaining motivation for learning due to extrinsic factors only is immensely hard in the long run. It also removes much of the pleasure and fulfilment to be gained from intrinsically driven learning.
In short, doing well (or learning) simply with the goal of reaching the next level isn’t inspiring, or motivating in the long run.
What’s particularly key is that becoming an intrinsically motivated learner from the very beginning, in the Early Years, has the ability to set the tone for the rest of an individual’s life. The most adept, fulfilled and successful learners are those who are intrinsically motivated from the very beginning.
Very young children are said to be like sponges. They absorb information and learning from the world around them with seemingly unrivalled ability. It follows, therefore, that they will be able to reach fluency in a second language much more easily than older children, and certainly adults.
In fact, there’s a definite window in childhood when it is considerably easier to acquire a second language, certainly with fluency. Researchers disagree how long that window remains open, but some say it reaches its peak by around 6 or 7 years old. After this point it is understood to be much harder to learn a second language, and considerably harder to gain fluency in it.
Why is this so?