How do multilingual children acquire and learn a new language?

Do you know how speech development begins? How do children learn to speak? What is actually a definition of language? How to support a “second language” in a bilingual child? If you find these questions interesting, keep reading. 

What is a definition of language?  An encyclopaedical definition may sound like it is a system of symbols and sounds enabling people to communicate. Quite understandable, however, there is another definition as well, that a language is the sum of four language skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing. It is precisely in this order that every child in the world learns his/her language. Or, in the case of our children, their LANGUAGES.

Nowadays, it is a well-known fact that a child perceives sounds, voices and melodies already at prenatal age and can even remember them. After birth, babies are able to identify familiar sounds that can calm them down – the voice of mom, dad or familiar song. On the contrary, unknown sounds can upset them. Do the babies however already recognize the tongues while still in the tummy?

Indeed, the development of speech begins already in the prenatal period and never ends. Communication skills and speech ability develop gradually and the progress is very individual for each and every child. 

After birth, children are like a blank page of book and are ready to start acquiring any language of the world that they are surrounded with. Be it Swedish, Greek, Korean and Slovak at the same time, as long as they are regularly exposed to all of those languages.

Between the 6th and 10th month, babies babble in syllables and start imitating tones and sounds they listen to. Gradually, they respond to simple questions, and, in conjunction with intonation and facial expressions, they begin to understand their loved ones. They might even try to reply and interact – either non-verbally or with their first babble words.

The first 3 years of life, the brains of young children are uniquely suited to learn languages. Infants acquire languages with remarkable speed, they are having no problem absorbing different tongues with diverse phonetics or intonation. Learning a language comes naturally and unconsciously. Children can learn another language as easily as they learn to walk or learn their primary language.

Between the ages of 3 and 6, the ability to learn a foreign language declines if a child is exposed to only one language. However, if he/she continues being exposed simultaneously to more languages, a child will be able to distinguish which person to speak which language to and can quickly adapt or switch languages. The period of differentiation of phonetic units, intonation and melody of speech as well as a natural orientation to languages in its surroundings slowly closes around the sixth year.

For older children and adults, acquiring a second language is a conscious rather than subconscious process, more appropriately termed language learning rather than language acquisition.

An interesting fact is that between the ages of 6 and 12, a language that a child has used until then may be lost, if not being used anymore. In addition, during this period, children can develop varying levels of anxiety due to a fear of making mistakes that might slow the learning process. 

According to experts, there is a borderline age (maximum 9-12 years) that anyone can learn a foreign language with a native-like accent. After early teens, the chance of learning a new language without an accent of the first language is vanishingly small. Later, this ability is lost. One can learn a new language at any point of his life, however not without a birth tongue accent (albeit grammatically correct). This does not mean we should give up learning new languages. As Amy Chua says, a foreign accent is a sign of bravery!

During school period, children develop language skills systematically; it is time for reading, writing, reading comprehension etc. It is a period for exploring the language in depth and mastering grammatical phenomena. It is time for developing a special themed vocabulary, communication and discussion abilities, text and information analyzing skills and much more.  

However, language learning is a never-ending process.  In every stage of our life, we have to learn new words and terminology related either to our profession or current life situation (parents will surely remember how their vocabulary changed after the birth of their kids). In addition, languages are constantly changing and evolving, and we all have a lot to do to “keep up” with modern terms, jargon and vocabulary that change as quickly as the world we live in.

What about multilingual children? From our experience, starting a school in primary language can be a turning point in children’s multilingualism. This is the time when your parental decision might determine how and to which extent your children will keep and cultivate a “second/third” language skills. You can provide them with a regular exposure, enough time and space for communication or even with a systematic further development approach. Our team is here to assist you and your little ones to “keep up” with their Slovak. We always structure the education your child needs.. 

Miriam Račeková