Q. I really want my daughter (now in elementary school) to be fluent in at least one other language in addition to English. What language would benefit her the most? Of course, I love Spanish and French, but would it make more sense in our current world for her to learn Chinese or Japanese or some other language? And what is the best age to start language acquisition?
A. If you can read this sentence, you are one of almost 350 million people in the world who know the English language. However, there is less power behind this number when you consider that English is only the third most spoken language in the world (behind Mandarin and Spanish), and English is only projected to be spoken by 5 percent of the people on earth by 2050 (due to population growth estimates in less developed countries). Based on these statistics, as a parent you are proactive and pragmatic to be considering multilingualism for your child.
The best way to introduce a new language is to introduce it as early as possible. While all people are born with the ability to learn a language (or two, or three), this ability diminishes with age. Starting before puberty or the end of early adolescence will help wire the brain for dual language use as well as stymie an accent that could result once the muscles in the mouth have already grown and formed. This theory may also influence your decision on which language to pursue. Unless you can speak and teach a foreign language to your child, or afford to live abroad for a few years while your children are small, you may become dependent on schools for language instruction.
In Colorado, public schools offer full immersion programs for Spanish and English and, therefore, Spanish may be the most accessible language. There are schools such as the Denver Montclair International School that offer English, French, Mandarin and Spanish if you can afford the $12,000 annual tuition. For most people, staying home and taking advantage of the amazing language programs in Colorado public schools may be the most affordable option. In this case, Spanish would be the feasible language to acquire.
As a language enthusiast myself, I must also endorse the study of languages that interest you the most. Culture and language go hand in hand. If, for example, you and your child are of Italian descent or enjoy studying Italian art and architecture, then learning to speak Italian would put the “fun” in functional for your family.
Learning a language should be fun. When kids feel forced to learn a new language, they begin to feel resentful and may resist your attempts to introduce something new. Regardless of the language you choose, thinking bilingual has numerous cognitive benefits for small children.
So remember, start young and have fun!