How much time?

Ran across this article in the Washington Post on learning a second language. In this story, the report states that children are getting foreign language lessons 30 minutes a week; they contrast this with a program in which children learn by having contact with the foreign language every day across a number of subjects. But, I got to thinking.

  • How much time do kids need to learn a second language. Obviously, it’s more that 30 minutes a week.
  • Are there benefits to only 30 minutes a week?
  • And, do these benefits “stick”?

How long does it take? It takes several years to learn a second language. Children can start fairly quickly to communication in a second language using phrases and words. But, this does not mean that they learn the second language easily, especially if they are in the process of still learning their first language. It takes about two years to achieve fluency at a basic level. They can hold a conversation, respond to familiar questions, use familiar vocabulary, but they are usually still more fluent in their home language. What they might have more difficulty with is making inferences, using their second language skills to comprehend a second language (even if they can decode it) and their vocabulary skills may lag behind that of native speakers. To achieve these higher level skills takes about 5 and up to 7 years .

But, does 30 minutes a day do it? Well, no. And that is certainly not the claim here. The claim is that 30 minutes a week exposes children to another language which serves as a kind of cultural enrichment. From this perspective I guess that makes a certain kind of sense. It exposes children to the notion that languages have different sounds and different sound patterns. It might introduce children to the notion that things are said differently in different languages (different words and grammar for example). In doing so it may be that children could learn to think about interpersonal communication from another point of view. I’m not saying that it will contribute directly to world peace but understanding different linguistic and cultural perspectives isn’t a bad thing.

What about more lasting results? If the above did last, it would be wonderful. I suspect however that more sustained contact with a language would be needed. There has to be a reason for using a language for people to use it. But, it could be that early familiarity could lead to recognition later on. I don’t have any research on this but I do have an anecdote. My son learned a few words of Japanese including counting when he was in the first grade. This year (as a 5th grader) he attended a karate class as a guest of one of his friends. He was astonished to have some memory of how to count in Japanese. That helped him to feel comfortable in a class when he otherwise was unfamiliar with how to do the moves. So, in that case the little bit of familiarity did help. But, it hardly makes him bilingual.

So, probably it doesn’t hurt to introduce young children to other languages. There are likely to be social benefits to this. To become bilingual however, sustained, and regular contact with a second language is critical.

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  1. #1 by Sarah on November 4, 2009 - 1:32 pm

    Hi! I’ve just discovered your blog and am so glad that I did. It’s very helpful to see posts by academics who are living and researching bilingualism–most of the blogs about bilingualism (mine included) are largely anecdotal.

    The issue(s) you raise in this post have been on my mind for years. I spent two years speaking exclusively French with my nephew one afternoon a week, and his progress amazed me. (We live in northern Colorado–not many Francophones here.) Now I see him less often, and his spoken French has definitely tapered off. However, he seems still to understand quite a bit. Here’s what he was able to say at 18 months with the once-a-week contact:

    I am raising my son (almost two years old) bilingually (French and English) and documenting it on my blog, Bringing up Baby Bilingual. I’d be honored if you’d list it in your blogroll!

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