Language exposure for children is extremely important for them to learn a second language.
We consistently talk on this site about the quality of exposure provided to your children. This post covers the quantity of exposure necessary for a child to learn a language. Of course, this would differ for most families, where certain children would pick up their new language skills sooner than earlier. That is why in this post we will discuss the scientific research on this topic, combined with real-life examples wherever necessary.
Let's take a look at what science suggests in terms of the time commitment required towards making your child learn a new language. We will look at a scientific study presented by the University of Washington, with a group of 280 children from Spain, having participants from all economic backgrounds.
The study by the University of Washington
A group of UW undergraduates and graduates learned a teaching method before going to Spain, which used parentese as a mode of teaching. Parentese is when parents exaggeratedly talk to their children, often using high-pitched sounds for words and elongating vowels.
Ferjan Ramirez, a research scientist at the University of Washington Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences says that their research shows parentese helps children learn a language.
Babies ages 7 months to 33.5 months were provided hour-long English lessons for 18 weeks while a controlled group of babies received the standard public school bilingual program. Both groups were tested for Spanish and English at the end of the 18 weeks.
The children who received the UW method of teaching constantly outperformed their peers in the public school bilingual program at the end of 18 weeks. On average children in the UW, program produced 74 words or phrases per child per hour, whereas the public school children only produced 13.
Ferjan Ramirez said the findings show that even babies from monolingual homes can develop bilingual abilities at this early age.
“With the right science-based approach that combines the features known to grow children’s language, it is possible to give very young children the opportunity to start learning a second language, with only one hour of play per day in an early education setting,” she said. “This has big implications for how we think about foreign-language learning.”
What's even better was that 18 weeks after the culmination of the original study, the children still retained the words they had learned. Spanish, which is the majority language, also continued to grow and was not negatively impacted by the children learning English as well.
The conclusion of the Study
There can be many derivatives from the study, but the one to concentrate on was that playful teaching for one hour per day was enough for children to build acceptable bilingual skills for their age. Since the children who were part of the study were between 7 months and 33.5 months, similar techniques prepared them to enroll comfortably in bilingual programs offered in public schools.
This means that for one hour a day, if you use primarily parentese (combined with other teaching tools), combined with bilingual programs in public schooling, your child too can be bilingual. This is especially good news for monolingual families where one parent one language (OPOL) is not practical.
All families are different
As promising as the study is, we understand that each family is different. The time required for your child to grasp some words and phrases will be longer than other children in their age group. The study only suggests that children between the ages of 0 and 3 can develop a vocabulary that is strong enough to comfortably enter a professional education environment. This can be accomplished by providing one hour of language input every day.
It's better to see language learning as a lifelong journey, with parentese being one of the effective methods of teaching. So if the goal was to answer the question How long does it take for a child to learn a language? We have the answer, 18 weeks and a lifetime. As for how long will it take for a child to be fluent in a language, that would come around the age of 10 and above.
The 7 inclusions
If we observe bilingual education in children, we can narrow down 7 types of activities that a child can do in a day that can effectively use the hour set aside for language learning. These aren’t necessarily a guide to pursuing language learning with engaging activities. These can be altered and must be altered to what your child will more naturally gravitate towards.
These aren’t organized based on a child’s age, so some activities may be suitable for babies, some for toddlers, and others for older children.
Reading aloud to your child will likely be the bedrock of their language learning, especially at an early age. Ideally, it should be started from the time of childbirth and continued throughout their childhood. You can split the hour of reading aloud into multiple sessions of 30 minutes each, which can be done during breakfast or any other point during the day. The remaining 30 minutes of that given day can be filled with some other language-learning activity. We recommend that you do this 5 days a week, if not every day.
This should be an inclusion for all children, and a nonnegotiable one at that. Simply because it's the most active form of teaching, with the strongest impact on language learning. This is where you can apply the parentese technique from the study above. Our A-Z creatures book helps parents and children make the most of this reading time.
Doing homework in the target language
This would be highly age-dependent and consequently skill dependent. However, if your child has some reading skills in the target language, the “homework” can include reading a page of a book by themselves. We called it homework because this can be applied to their everyday school homework, where towards the end of homework, they can read something.
Being at school, children have a sense of obligation to do homework as a part of their routine, and this can simply be added to that.
Weekday interactions can include playing games, telling stories about your life, or people they know in a foreign language completely. Or you can use your native language words to address certain objects or actions.
These conversations can be genuine or lightly fluffed, where as a parent you actively think of ways to incorporate language learning (primarily vocabulary) in your stories.
When you do find the time, it's time to get into the car and visit places that you think can help with language learning. This can be parks, landmarks, or museums.
Experiential learning will have a profound impact on your child’s brain, and they will likely associate certain names and terms with place. Not to mention that this will add to the relevance of learning a language. Seeing the language and the written word being used in their surroundings will make the language more important in their minds.
The idea of captive reading is to simply post words or sentences in places around the house where the child spends their time. When they interact with objects or enter rooms, you can post words for them to read.
The basic idea is to spend as much time with a language as possible, so this is a good way to supplement their language learning as deemed necessary.
This is a supplemental technique for language learning. This is something that can follow reading aloud or doing homework. You can use shows in the target language, ideally cartoons. These shows will likely repeat the elementary vocabulary that your child is used to hearing.
This technique is effective to enforce language relevance, but shouldn’t be a standalone activity that a child does in a day.
Listening to music
If your child shows affliction toward music or songs, make sure that they get time in the day to simply listen to music in a foreign language. They can sing along or listen to the words. A popular song like “Baby Shark” is available in multiple languages.
If required, you can create a playlist for them, on an iPod. That way you can be sure that they are listening to the music that you want them to. Make it an active exchange, if you find a song you think they will like, play it for them. If they want, add it to their playlist.
From the post above, we learned that with the right kind of input, a child can learn a language by spending just one hour a day. That is 7 hours a week. This language hour prepares babies and toddlers to join bilingual curriculums in public schools, where they can then advance their language skills. As for fluency, that will take time, and complete language acquisition can be observed by the age of 10. The technique used for this education is primarily parentese which can be used in reading sessions with your child. That being said, all families are different and a combination of approaches may be required to boost language learning.