Encouraging children’s bilingual learning

When raising bilingual children, it’s important to start exposing to both languages at an early age, as children tend to absorb more information during their younger years, learning new skills quicker than adults – who often prefer to learn things that can be applied to their career or professional life.

Communication skills are crucial for strong child development, relationship building and connecting with other family members. If children are unable to do these things, it can lead to various challenges, such as difficulty sharing feelings – which can lead to frustration and even emotional stress.

Martin Curtis, director, Palaver, discusses these challenges, exploring how new, free technology can help to overcome language barriers amongst bilingual families – on a budget.


Encouraging children’s bilingual learning

How a child’s brain develops…

A child begins to recognise words in the womb, particularly from their mother’s voice.

From birth up until around age six, a child’s brain is like a ‘sponge’ – absorbing everything around them. Before the age of three, children will often absorb information subconsciously, as their brains are developing quicker than any other time. Between ages three and six, they will usually start to absorb specific information more consciously.

A child’s core brain structure is 85% developed by the time they’re five, so it’s valuable to teach your children to learn their heritage language from a young age. The ideal age window for children to learn an additional language is during their first couple of years.


The benefits of bilingualism 

There’s approximately 3.3 billion people around the world who are bilingual – accounting for 43% of the entire population. In the UK, 20% of school-aged children can speak more than one language.

A 2021 study reveals that bilingual children have around 6.5% more efficient thinking skills than monolingual children. They also find it easier to switch between and juggle multiple tasks, problem solve and ignore distractions. This can benefit their development, and bilingualism has been proven to offer long term benefits, such as memory retention and even dementia reduction.


How language barriers are affecting families

Speaking the same language as family members can help children to feel more accepted by their relatives, as well as more connected to their culture and family traditions.

Learning one language from an early age is hard enough, but when a child is also unable to speak the same language as part of their family, it can create language barriers, causing knock-on effects such as distance – physically and emotionally – and even misunderstandings. The inability to communicate with relatives in their heritage language can restrict close relationships, social discussions and the ability to learn about family history.

Monolingual people have reported feelings of embarrassment when visiting their heritage country if they’re unable to share the language, and often feel like they’re treated like a child, relying on other family members to translate. Some also feel no need to learn their heritage language, due to living in countries like the United Kingdom – where the majority of people speak ‘universal’ English.

During their early years, children begin to express thoughts and feelings, but if they have underdeveloped heritage language skills, it can affect their social and emotional well-being, leading to potential behavioural issues or self-isolation. For example, ‘selective mutism’ is described as a childhood anxiety disorder, where a child will not speak in certain settings but will speak in others. This can cause issues with socialising and enjoyment.

In a family setting, language barriers can cause children to feel as though they’re unable to communicate or ask for help in their heritage language. This can lead to them feeling frustrated, less confident and less intelligent – as relatives tend to correct them rather than listen to their questions or comments.


How new, free technology can help

When they’re learning, it’s important to give children the room to explore by themselves – they need to live their childhood without constant direction from adults around them. New technology supports this by giving children independence when learning an additional language. Palaver is a free to download language translation app, easy and simple for any generation to use, enabling children to build their own personal relationships, without the reliance on other family members for translation.

Children have more time to explore, learning from their mistakes as they grow older. New technology can encourage interaction and engagement, supporting investigating and discovery.

Parents are recommended to encourage their children to talk, read, sing and even play in their heritage language. Children also absorb more during short and focused learning periods – one step at a time – putting all their energy into grasping a small piece of information before moving onto the next. They focus on one thing until they understand it – for example, a word.

Learning a sentence word for word can expand a child’s vocabulary in their additional language, as well as the order of words and sentence structures. The Palaver app instantly translates audio and text into another language – allowing children to absorb as much vocabulary as possible. Palaver’s image feature also enables on demand translation when reading books or textbooks, for example.


Building relationships with relatives overseas

Coming from a bilingual family often involves having family members living overseas. In this scenario, communication is essential to maintaining long-distance relationships. Building relationships digitally is hard enough, but when relatives speak a different language to your children, this is even trickier.

Palaver’s live voice translator for phone calls and text translate for messages enables your child to build and maintain relative connections independently, anywhere in the world, without the reliance on other family members. This supports your child with building close and meaningful relationships – that last a lifetime, bridging the distance between different generations.

Learning an additional language as they grow older can improve a child’s confidence, encouraging open communication amongst family members and distant relatives.

The Palaver translation app is free to download from the App Store and Google Play.


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