If you’re considering enrolling your infant in a Spanish immersion program, you may wonder if there’s any advantage to being exposed to the language at such a young age. The answer, of course, is yes – the earlier a person starts learning a language, the greater the benefits.
While there are cognitive and social advantages to learning a second language at any age, infancy is a particularly rich time for language acquisition. By the time babies are four months old, they are able to babble and to differentiate between various speech sounds and patterns. Their language acquisition has already begun.
Infants spend a great deal of time with caregivers (whether it is parents, relatives, nannies, babysitters, or child care teachers). These caregivers generally speak slowly, simply, and in a way that targets specific syllables, words, and concepts that need to be learned. This makes infancy a perfect time to introduce another language at the same time the child learns their native language, leading to what is known as “simultaneous bilingualism.”
This simultaneous learning of two languages gives infants an advantage as they develop both their language and social skills. Research shows that simultaneous bilinguals of English and Spanish have a natural grasp on the differentiation between masculine and feminine articles when speaking Spanish, while sequential bilinguals (who learn their native language first and then a second language), must memorize and recall these differences. Early language learning is also linked to increased cognitive abilities (especially related to memory and multi-tasking) in infants, as well as enhanced empathy, due to the attention the child must pay to the varying facial expressions, words, and vocal tones of the speakers of the two different languages.
It may seem overwhelming to introduce your child to a second language at the same time he or she learns the native language, and you may be concerned that this will create confusion between the two languages. However, in their article “Bilingualism in the Early Years: What the Science Says,” Krista Byers-Heinlein and Casey Lew-Williams point to research that shows infants can distinguish between “rhythmically dissimilar” languages (such as English and French) at birth. They go on to say that 4-month-old infants are able to tell when silent talking faces are speaking different languages, but that by 8 months, monolingual infants are no longer able make this determination. Bilingual infants, on the other hand, are still able to notice the subtle variations in facial expressions that make up the different languages.
As the baby gets older starts putting sentences together, he or she may begin to “code mix,” or speak a combination of the native language and second language. Instead of being concerned about this mixing of languages, parents can see it as a normal and natural part of bilingual development. The child is simply using whatever words are most readily available in his or her vocabulary, and as the vocabulary in both languages continues to develop, the words will begin to fit together in whichever language is being spoken. Byers-Heinlein and Lew-Williams call code mixing “a sign of bilingual children’s ingenuity.”
In a Spanish immersion setting, the child isn’t just learning vocabulary words, he or she is hearing, speaking, and interacting in Spanish throughout the entire day. It is recommended that children spend at least 30% of their waking hours being immersed in a second language in order to successfully communicate in that language. This translates to roughly 25 hours per week. While there are wonderful benefits to flash cards, language lessons, or time spent with a bilingual babysitter (for example, these briefer activities can train the child’s ear and set the stage for later sequential language learning), only being immersed in the language allows the child to learn it in a comprehensive way. And since the benefits of simultaneous bilingualism begin in infancy, Spanish immersion is a great way to give your little one a head start.