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Benefits of learning languages for children

(48 Posts)
AnaB1980 Sun 11-Aug-13 14:57:38


I was looking for ideas for a new after-school activity for my 6yo and I came across this article about the benefits of learning languages from an early age (which I didn't know!).

Any mums out there whose children are learning languages and would like to share their insights? My boy is already doing sports but I thought a more academic activity like language lessons would do him good. Any advice much appreciated!

shoobidoo Mon 12-Aug-13 07:39:23

Yes, learning languages young is a great idea. But I wouldn't choose Spanish, I think German would be more useful for study/work purposes.

throckenholt Mon 12-Aug-13 07:56:45

I think learning foreign languages at any age is great - gives an insight into how other people live and think - no bad thing ever.

You need someone to run the class who is good at making it fun, and who is fluent, and doesn't make it in to a lesson, but more picking up the language while having fun.

cantreachmytoes Mon 12-Aug-13 08:14:17

I'm not sure why German is better than Spanish (having studied them - German more than Spanish) as Spanish is far more widely spoken.

I would second the idea that it needs to be fun. Also, if there's an emphasis, it should be on speaking rather than writing or reading (both important too) - there is very, very little use in reading a language but not being able to communicate with anyone other than a pen pal! From what I've seen it's usually easier to read and write after speaking than listen and speak after reading and writing.

Great idea though.

cantreachmytoes Mon 12-Aug-13 08:15:39

If it's for future study/work purposes, I'd go for Chinese!

Retropear Mon 12-Aug-13 10:53:35

Yes I've heard from several people that Chinese is the only one worth doing but it's really hard.Have Chinese born friends whose dc struggle and friends with children adopted from China(thus exposed to it from an early age) who don't find it easy either.

Lonecatwithkitten Tue 13-Aug-13 10:08:50

My DD is at a school that is very strong for languages. They start French in nursery and mandarin in year 1. In year 3 they go on to a carousel system of Spanish, Italian and French. Mandarin is taught through out.
I have been amazed by how she has thrived with this system clearly knowing which language is which and being able to effortlessly switch between them.
The school goes all the way to 18 and it's system appears to be very successful as 50% of the sixth form are going to Oxford, Cambridge and Durham to study modern languages.

cory Tue 13-Aug-13 10:25:37

I don't at all agree that Chinese is the only one worth doing. Lots of people speak French in African countries for instance, Spanish is spoken in Latin America, not just in Spain, German is still used as a lingua franca in parts of the former Eastern bloc. For an academic career, German is a very useful language.

The problem with Chinese is a) that it is very very difficult to learn to the kind of standard where it will be useful for anything b) it is quite difficult to keep up. The script takes even Chinese children many, many years to learn and if you can't get the intonation right you won't be able to get people to understand you.

French, German and Spanish (or Italian) have the advantage that you can quite easily and quickly get to the kind of level where it becomes self-sustaining and you can easily improve yourself by reading newspapers (easily available) or books (again easily available) or watching films (plenty of those around). And it's easy enough to take a child over to France for a short holiday to let them see for themselves that the world is full of people speaking French.

SO yes, if you can offer your child a sustainable full programme of exposure to Chinese- go for it. If not, then French or Spanish seem a better option.

A little Spanish goes a long way, a little Chinese goes nowhere.

morethanpotatoprints Tue 13-Aug-13 20:15:10

My dd is starting language lessons in a few weeks and has opted for Italian and will maybe do German and Latin too.
I think it depends what you want from it long term if you are paying for lessons rather than as an extra free activity at school.
She chose these because she sings and thinks these particular languages will be important to her.

Retropear Wed 14-Aug-13 07:28:32

But surely unless you're fluent in French(ie to degree level)and want to work in a French speaking country it's pointless.

I did French A level but it's never been much use.Yes I could function in France to live(just)but work in a French speaking office no and unless you can show you're fluent nobody would employ you.

Also an awful lot of commerce in the future is going to be with China,not France.However the difficulty to lean it is an issue.

Yes learning French was lovely but crucial no and in an overloaded school timetable would not my first choice re the kids- unless they had a interest in languages as a career choice.

RichManPoorManBeggarmanThief Wed 14-Aug-13 07:36:50

Chinese (mandarin) is a hard language and you need to put a fair bit of time into it. DS is starting in September at pre-school and one hour per week outside but only because we live in HK so he hears and sees Chinese every day (albeit Cantonese dialect). I dont think it really matters which language you pick for your son to learn since arguably once you know another language, others are easiest to learn.

Apparently one of the benefits is that when you are young your ear can tune in to sounds that are not in your native language (eg the "Ds" and "Ng" sounds in Chinese), and this benefits future language acquisition.

Somethingyesterday Wed 14-Aug-13 07:57:16

But Retro are you seriously saying that your French has been of no use to you? shock

You don't enjoy being able to fully appreciate literature, philosophy, history, science, art in another, hugely influential European language?

I agree with Cory that while Mandarin is potentially vital, it's hopeless if you can't sustain your learning. I've been frustrated by this myself. Whereas having even basic O'level German, better French and a little Italian really does make life easier in so many ways. (Even if you hesitate before talking with a native speaker.) General literature obviously - English speaking writers of earlier centuries were better educated and write with an assumption of being understood when they throw in other languages. Far better to be able to pick one's way through than to fling the book down and label the writer "elitist." University level texts often contain long passages in the original language of the relevant experts.

Learning any language makes you aware of how your own language is formed. It should improve your English.

Retro Were you studying Latin at the same time? If not, I think it would have grounded your modern language study. In fact I think it should be compulsory for all English speaking children.

Retropear Wed 14-Aug-13 08:18:50

It's been useful to function in France on a basic level but sadly aside from that no it hasn't helped me to appreciate all on your list.

Dp can't speak a word of French( never having done it at school) he is far more Francophile than I am. Appreciating a culture doesn't hinge on being able to speak the language.

Lonecatwithkitten Wed 14-Aug-13 08:59:49

Having a DD who is studying Mandarin I have to challenge this idea that it is more difficult and harder to get to a good standard than european languages.
She is taught by a native speaker who tells me her intonation is excellent she has similar level of language as Spanish, Italian and French so she would be able to converse very basic hello how are you, could I have an ice cream and she can write a variety symbols that back up this speaking level. She is 9 and has had an hour a week during term time.
I do think the age of starting is important though - she was 6 so has not suffered the embarassment you or I might feel in experimenting with getting the intonation correct.
I feel having additional languages is vital. I am a scientist, but have kept my french at a good level (I understand nearly everything speak a bit less) and every other country I go to I learn a few phrases in the language so can say good day, good night, please and thank you in around 10 languages including mandarin and russian. At least making an attempt buys you a lot of good will when visiting other countries.

cory Wed 14-Aug-13 09:50:20

Interesting to hear, Lonecat. I suppose I was thinking about it from a business perspective: the kind of level you would need to actually be able to use it in a working environment, since this is something that came up on this thread. If it's just about basic asking for an icecream level, then no language is more useful than another: the only way of judging usefulness would be which country you intend to visit.

My understanding is that the next stage up in Mandarin (to where you can read an article, use it in business conversation, write a letter or an email) is quite a bit harder than the corresponding next stage in Spanish or Italian.

Not that I personally think that professional usefulness is the only reason for learning a language. Your dd's horizons are being expanded and that is a great thing in itself. And she may well find it is worth putting in that extra effort to have something that is still quite unusual.

cory Wed 14-Aug-13 09:53:50

Retropear Wed 14-Aug-13 07:28:32
"But surely unless you're fluent in French(ie to degree level)and want to work in a French speaking country it's pointless."

I'd say that depends. If you are going in for an academic career, then having reading skills in German and French is immensely helpful; many of our students and younger academics are seriously disadvantaged because they miss out on research done in other countries; they end up reinventing the wheel.

MrsGSR Wed 14-Aug-13 10:07:04

Watching this with interest as I'm debating my (due in Jan, early planning!) child doing a second language.

I was considering Spanish (partly because it's so widely spoken), and have read that knowing Spanish is a big advantage if they were to learn French or Italian when they are older.

I did GCSE German, I have very basis language skills but they were a massive help when I lived in Germany. Just being able to introduce myself, apologise that my German isn't good and ask politely if they spoke English was incredibly helpful. Not to mention being able to read food labels, menus and road signs!

Somethingyesterday Wed 14-Aug-13 10:08:33

cory You put it so much better than I could. reinventing the wheel will keep me grin all day. Do they really do that? How frustrating!

SonorousBip Wed 14-Aug-13 10:12:17

I hope I'm not going to offend too many people when I say that I think German is a pretty useless language to learn (and I speak as the owner of a German A level). There are very few German people who do not speak somewhere between good and excellent English. I suspect the ones that don't are not the ones you are going to meet, unless you are in a small Tyrolean mountain hut. I work with a lot of German colleagues and with German clients across a number of business sectors and they can all switch between German and very strong English at will. I have only ever been there on business - where everyone politely greets my "technically correct but wooden German" with good English. <whispers: I have never felt the need to go there on hols>.

French - at least scores well on the holiday factor.

Spanish - I am pushing DS down that route (he has to choose between German and Spanish as a second MFL). Very widely spoken in S America and US. Ticks both the travel and usefulness boxes.

My top tip is Japanese. Surprisingly easy - gramatically and pronunciation-wise, very regular/predicatable/easy. Kanji are an easy intro to Chinese should you want to study it later. Not tonal. Sounds impressive! Unlike the French, any Japanese person to whom you speak even a halting morsel of bad Japanese will fall overthemselves with delight.

Somethingyesterday Wed 14-Aug-13 10:21:03

Mmmm.... I've always rather regretted picking German rather than Greek for O'level. It was and is useful to have some grasp of German - but I am stupid without Greek. Knowing how much I rely on Latin for pretty much everything, I wish I had the same starting point from Greek.

Very interested in the Japanese suggestion. That might well be worth looking into soon.

elQuintoConyo Wed 14-Aug-13 10:45:56

How is a six-year-old supposed to know whar s/he wants to continue to degree level or career-wise? That's nuts.
I'd like to point out that learning any language is better than not learning any.
Italian is obviously Latin-based, as is Spanish and French. Learning any of these would enrich learning and understanding English. German is a little harder to learn, but again students can see how influential it's been to the English language, and can connect some familiar words or see they share a route (horhaus/whorehouse is great, perhaps not for aged 6!)

A foreign language opens future doors and possibilities, enriches understandung if English, of the foreign country and its art, literature, philosophy etc. It can help forge new friendships through penpals (Skype pals these days?), exchange students and the possibility of doing an Erasmus year at university - so many friends have met their DPs through Erasmus smile

DS will certainly be learning a foreign language, it is as important as maths, history, sports... etc.

elQuintoConyo Wed 14-Aug-13 10:48:14

route = root, obviously <ahem>

Somethingyesterday Wed 14-Aug-13 11:02:22

elQuintoconfused Were you perhaps unable to access the full thread? No-one has suggested that degree courses were being chosen for a six year old..... (And you will see the rest of your points above. Although obviously you put them with far more grace and vigour than any other poster could aspire to. smile)

Vietnammark Wed 14-Aug-13 15:43:40


Grammar is very simple, pronunciation is difficult for most native English speakers unless you start learning it early, reading is not so difficult, writing is extremely difficult and unless native speakers continually practice they make many mistakes.

Primarily because of the writing, it takes a lot more hours of study to master than European languages. If you are not too bothered with the writing it is not a difficult language.

My 5 year old son is learning it as his third language, the other two being English and Vietnamese which he is fluent in. He hasn't really clicked that Mandarin is very similar to Vietnamese yet, but when his Vietnamese and Mandarin improve he will start to see the similarities.

I do feel that learning a European language can help you understand your own language better, assuming your own language is also a European language. For my son I believe learning Mandarin will help him understand Vietnamese better, but it won't have any effect on his understanding of English.

encyclogirl Wed 14-Aug-13 16:10:13

Ds12 will be taking Spanish and German as well as Irish (compulsory). He wants to study international law later on and languages fascinate him.

He only picked German over French because he met the German Master for his new school and he was completely inspired to learn the language following their conversation.

If I would have let him take French he would have taken that too!

He's more wordy than numeric by far, so this is a path that will suit him.

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