As someone who may possibly acclaim as bilingual, I never forget the frustration I grew up in learning a second languageâ€”Englishâ€”in a non-native language environment.
English is so different from Mandarin Chinese in many ways, such as grammar, intonation, pronunciation, and writing. Plus, traditional English teaching in China focused on knowledge giving rather than developing effective communication skills in using this language.
I still remember how I painfully learned English as a second language. I had to write down each language point explained by my teacher, for example, meanings and usage of key words and expressions, sentence formation, and grammar. After class, I spent hours trying to memorize the new vocabulary and complete the exercises on the language points. The purpose of doing all of these, of course, was to pass the standardized tests.
No wonder after studying English for so many years, sometimes I still feel frustrated of not being able to express myself and not being able to make myself clearly understood (I hope you understand what I am saying in this blog). I have to say second languages are much easier to master when starting earlier.
So say Dr. Kovelman, Dr. Baker and Dr. Petitto.
Dr. Ioulia Kovelman is a professor of Department of Brain and Cognition Sciences of MIT. Dr. Stephanie A. Baker works as a professor of Department of Education of Dartmouth College.
And Dr. Laura Ann Petitto is the professor, director, and senior Scientist of the “Genes, Mind & fNIRS Brain Imaging Laboratory for Language, Bilingualism, and Child Development ” of the University of Toronto Scarborough and the University of Toronto.
Three of them conducted a study of 150 children in bilingual Spanish-English schools who were either from Spanish-speaking homes (new to English) or English-speaking homes (new to Spanish), as compared with English-speaking children in monolingual English schools.
They found out that an early age of first bilingual language exposure had a positive effect on reading, phonological awareness, and language competence in both languages: early bilinguals (age of first exposure 0-3 years) outperformed other bilingual groups (age of first exposure 3-6 years).
In particular, electrophysiological (ERP) data showed that â€œlateâ€ bilinguals exposed to a new languageâ€”even as early as age 4â€”had a non-native brain exposure to grammatical structures in their new language.
They concluded that early bilingual exposure is best for dual language reading development, and it may afford such a powerful positive impact on reading and language development that it may possibly ameliorate the negative effect of low SES on literacy.
Further, contrary to the popular perception that all young children can simply â€œabsorb like a spongeâ€ a new language, the age of first bilingual exposure is an important factor in influencing language competence and reading development of children.
Therefore, If you want your children to be fluent in a second language (depending on which one you choose), the best time to start is while they are still young. And if it is all possible, the earlier, the better.
P.S. The published paper, by Dr. Ioulia Kovelman, Dr. Stephanie A. Baker and Dr. Laura Ann Petitto, was used for reference during writing this article and I would like to give a special thanks to the authors.
Kovelman, I, Baker, S, A, & Petitto, L.A. (2008). Age of first bilingual language exposure as a new window into bilingual reading development. Bilingualism: language and cognition, 11 (2), 203-223.