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Toddler Brain Development & Learning Second Languages

by Jaime Vargas-Benitez

Toddlers typically master approximately 50 words by the end of their second year, according to the child development website Healthy Children. Soon after, toddlers will begin putting together two to three-word sentences. By age 2, toddlers begin to connect words with not only objects but also emotions, says the article, “The Psychologist in the Baby,” published on the child development website Zero to Three. The bilingual toddler is making these connections with both languages. This increases the ways in which bilingual toddlers are making connections in their brains to both object labeling and understanding emotions.

Increased Cognitive Development

Toddlers that grow up bilingually, or multilingual, show greater cognitive development than their counterparts, according to the article "Early Dual Language Learning," published on the website Zero to Three. The study states that children fluent in two or more languages show greater problem-solving skills and greater creativity. Learning language increases the synaptic connections in the brain -- and when learning two languages -- children develop greater numbers of these connections and increase their brain development, according to Zero to Three. Immersion in both languages enough to become fluent is important, according to Zero to Three. For example, toddlers who have Spanish-speaking parents and who live in the United States, learn English outside the home. They are immersed in both languages and will be fluent in both. These children will see the most significant increase in cognitive ability.

Misconceived Language Development Delay

There is a common misconception regarding toddlers and bilingualism. There has been an assumption that toddlers who are raised bilingual experience a language delay. The thought is that toddlers become confused when they are given more than one name for an object, and become confused with object labeling. This belief is false, according to a research article entitled, “The Bilingual Advantage in Novel Word Learning,” published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.” The study tested 20 monolinguals, 20 English-Spanish bilinguals and 20 English-Mandarin bilinguals in word recognition and recall. Both sets of bilinguals excelled in both categories over the monolingual group. The study concluded that bilingual speakers exhibit greater word-learning performance over monolingual speakers.

Bilingual Reading

Caregivers and parents should read books to children in both languages the toddler is learning, according to The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). There are even books that are bilingual in order to work on both languages simultaneously. Children should be encouraged to label objects in both languages through the book to encourage object labeling, as recommended by the NAEYC. For instance, a child who speaks both English and Spanish, may look at a ball in a book and say, "Ball, pelota. Ball, pelota." This type of exercise encourages practicing both languages simultaneously in children.

Academic Success

Teaching toddlers a second language sets them up for academic success later on. Children who are bilingual as toddlers perform better in school with reasoning and thinking than monolingual children, reports The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). These children have been practicing not one but two languages, which develops their brains on a level that monolingual children do not have. Toddlers’ home environments should be environments that intentionally support bilingualism on a consistent basis.

About the Author

Jaime Vargas-Benitez has been a parenting writer since 2010. She has worked in the child wellness field in various roles for over 20 years. Along with the experiences of raising her own kids, she has been privileged enough to participate in the raising of hundreds of other children as well.

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