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Children should learn a second language young, research shows

Children who learn a foreign language beginning in early childhood can benefit from increased critical thinking skills, memory and flexibility of the mind, experts say.

University of Queensland bilingual education expert Dr Simone Smala said other benefits of bilingualism include a slower mental decline in later years of life, a better appreciation of other cultures and increased job prospects.

Speaking in light of a trial program being launched in pre-schools across the country to increase the number of bilingual students graduating from high school, Smala said research shows the benefits of teaching young kids a second language.

“There’s also a greater meta-linguistic awareness, which means that the engagement with a second language makes children, even very young children, a lot more aware of language, of the different roles, the structure of sentences and so on,” Smala said.

But she added that the proportion of students in Australia studying a second language is low compared with other countries.

“For example, in New South Wales we’ve got only 8 per cent of students who study a foreign language for their high school certificate,” she said. “This is the lowest percentage ever recorded; this is for 2013. The total number of HSC students in New South Wales is more than 75,000; there are only 663 [of them] taking French, a very traditional second language in Australia, for their high school certificate.

“Across Australia, the number of students learning a language in Year 12 usually hovers around 10–12 per cent. In Queensland, it’s lower, it’s unfortunately only about 6 per cent.

“The numbers in many northern European countries in particular would be more like 80–100 per cent, and often involving not only a second but a third or a fourth language,” she added.

Click the link below to listen to the full interview with Smala.

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