Young children are learning a second language at an early age, and they’re not learning it at a pace that’s just right for them, a new study suggests.
The findings, from researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University at Buffalo, offer a clear warning that children may be losing their first language as they grow older.
“They may be learning a language at a slower rate than they should,” said co-author Michael Sivak, an assistant professor in the department of educational psychology.
“There is a risk that we are giving them a language that they don’t really need.”
Sivack, who co-authored the study, said he believes that children are gaining access to a second, more refined, language early on in their development, but that the learning process is often slow and they aren’t learning enough in their first years.
While Sivik said he’s not opposed to teaching children their second language as soon as possible, he believes it’s important to consider the social and cultural factors that could slow down their progress.
For example, Sivok said he sees parents using language as a form of self-protection, a way to assert control over their children and protect them from abuse.
“Parents often see language as something that is inherently hostile to children and a way of keeping children from expressing themselves,” Sivark said.
“I think it is important to look at the social context in which language is being used as a way that we can intervene.”
What parents should be thinking about First Language is a social construct, Svak said.
That means it can’t be fixed.
“Children will continue to develop and improve their understanding of their native languages through their own experiences,” Svack said.
For instance, children who learn English are more likely to develop a second-language fluency later in life.
If parents think they can change their children’s language, Svetozar said, “then that may be a better idea.”
Children who grow up with their first-language language in the background are more apt to understand social cues and patterns in their culture and can learn to respond appropriately when spoken to, Srivak said, but not necessarily when spoken by another child.
Parents should think carefully about what language is appropriate for their children.
For children who are learning in their second- and third-language languages, Svarak said they should be taught the same language, and their first and second languages should be kept separate.
“We don’t want our children learning a third language in their parents’ homes,” Svarik said.
If the child is struggling with a language, parents should ask their child if they need to learn it.
If they’re unsure, Svalar said, parents could also ask if the child can learn a third foreign language as an option.
The children in Siviak’s study, who were in their fifth or sixth year of age, had learned their second and third languages by the time they were in middle school.
Sivk’s research has focused on language learning for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, but the study also suggests that children who grow in their native language at age five are able to learn a language faster.
The study was published in the Journal of Early Childhood Research.