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At risk of sounding like the over-pushy head mistress from Daddy Daycare....

My wife and I are both monolingual Brits, living Britain, with a four-month old daughter. It seems a shame to waste this early stage (or perhaps the near future stage) when children are able to absorb language skills so quickly. Is there a gentle way to introduce some foreign language skills to our daughter now that would help her to enjoy a greater aptitude for learning languages later in life? I don't expect that our daughter will be fully bilingual, but could there be something in between raising a bilingual kid and not bothering at all? Foreign babysitter? Foreign children's movies?

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I'd recommend the foreign babysitter option. You'll want her to come on a regular basis, several hours a week at least, and you'll want her to speak to the child exclusively or almost exclusively in her own language. Make it clear that you want her just to speak the language, and not to attempt to teach it to the child; children don't learn languages natively the way they learn them in classrooms later on.

The child will probably speak back to her in English, and that's okay. She'll still learn to hear the sounds, which it more than half the battle of being able to speak them later on.

Perhaps more importantly, she'll learn at a fundamental level about the difference between meanings and words, since different languages use different words for the same meaning. This is thought to provide mental flexibility which can be highly useful even if she never actually learns a foreign language to a functional level.

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Congratulation, you will give a precious gift to your child.

Children of that age learn by listening, only by listening. Before reaching 7 years old their acoustic filters are not fixed by one particular language yet. The gentle way, in your situation, is a foreign nanny, movies or tv programs plus listening to music in that second language you want your child to learn.

I speak by experience. My daughter, now 16, is almost bilingual, studying spanish as third language and actually starting to learn gaelic, for fun. How come? Because we spoke to her in three languages until 6 years old. We listened to music in five or six different language, just for the sounds. Learning a language is easy and fun, once you understand how it works. Check the link to Tomatis centers.

My suggestion, besides movies, music and the fluent nanny. Why not start learning a new language at home with an immigrant teacher. You, your wife and the child. Start learning mandarin or russian with an fluent immigrant. These languages have a very large frequency bandwith and listening to large frequency bands is the key to early learning.

Check this link about frequency bands and language learning.

p.s. The fluency in a language is a must to teach young children. For an adult it is not as important to be perfectly fluent.

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  • 2
    Research shows that only live people speaking, not television or radio, helps your child to learn another language. – hkBst Sep 10 '16 at 10:41
  • "Research" is a magical word. Please indicate your sources. – Armando Sep 10 '16 at 12:16
  • I've seen the same TED talk as mentioned in pangabiMC's answer, but I don't think I have dug any deeper. I note you have no sources for your own claims. – hkBst Sep 10 '16 at 12:22
  • Check this link : europsycenter.ru/en/foreign-languages-tomatis – Armando Sep 10 '16 at 13:55
  • I had to downvote this because the research actually doesn't support these claims. Infants' acoustic systems begin tuning to whatever language(s) mom is speaking even before birth, and the decline in ability to perceiving foreign languages begins before their 1st bday. This thing about age 7 is from a study from Johnson & Newport, 1989, a study that both authors have since acknowledged wasn't sensitive enough. – Rose Hartman Mar 2 '17 at 8:21
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I've recently came across a TED talk about this subject which probably answers some of your questions. I suggest you watching the whole talk, but here are the key things:

  • Children are generally brilliant at learning languages until the age of 7. After puberty it takes much more effort.
  • The critical period for sound development is under the age of 1. This is where babies learn to differentiate between the noise and the sounds of their language. So exposing them to different languages even at this young age sounds like a good idea.
  • However exposure to TV or video does not help in this period. The social interaction that is crucial in this process cannot be replaced.

I'd like to emphasise the last point here, as this will probably narrow down your possibilities, but overall to me it seems like a good idea to expose babies to a second language.

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My boss at a previous employer was Japanese, his wife was American, they lived in Germany, and so their 3 sons were already fluent in English and German and had a good grasp of Japanese. My boss decided to send them to a French-speaking school. According to my boss, they picked up French pretty quickly and didn't have any further problems. I don't know how it worked out long term for them - hopefully fine!

That's just an interesting example that I thought I'd throw in there - as for my opinion, it's based on my partner's and my efforts to bring up our children bi-lingual in German and English in the UK. The kids are 6 and 4 and so far, so good. At the moment after spending 2 weeks in Germany, they are chatting fluently in German with each other. We do notice that they lag slightly in English behind the 2 or 3 bright kids in their school and nursery classes who we have decided are the 'reference' English children we compare our with. Apparently this disadvantage disappears once their vocabulary has matured.

The nursery linguistics expert talked to us about non-English mother-tongue children and gave us her opinion that confirms what some of the other answers say. Apparently as they learnt to talk themselves, hearing 2nd or 3rd languages is very beneficial. She also told us that to gain fluency, the child should be exposed to the 2nd language for at least 40 hours per week.

My partner and I achieved this by making German our house language - even though mine is a bit poor. I was dubious about the benefit I was bringing with my German, but it seemed to help. My daughter now corrects my German!

Again as others say, songs, audio books and TV are all useful and helped us achieve that 40 hour mark.

For me, it was clear that my partner's mother tongue was the 2nd language of choice (in fact it is competing to be the 1st language) but for you as monolingual people, I would recommend taking the plunge yourselves and learning a second language too. You could find a lot of synergies in the efforts you are making for your child - you could read books for her in that language yourself, you could go along to foreign-language play groups and actually converse in that language yourselves with the adults there, you could go on holiday to that country and actually get by with the locals etc etc.

By the way, with all this concentration on language, don't forget how beneficial to mental development music is too. So give her a bit of Brahms or Chopin in between the French / German / Mandarin....

Good luck!

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  • The social sciences are going through a bit of a reproducibility crisis. It would not surprise me if the purported benefits of listening to classical music would be one of the unreproducible results. – hkBst Sep 10 '16 at 10:49

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