How children learn languages

Babies are born with the ability to hear and make the sounds of any language. During their first six to seven months, babies make the same babbling sounds, regardless of the language(s) they hear at home.

By the end of the first year, infants tune into the language(s) they hear, and adapt their babbling to the sounds of those languages. Babies keep only those sounds that are important to the language(s) that they hear. Brain connections grow strong for these languages while brain connections for any other languages eventually grow weak from lack of use, as infants stop producing sounds they are not hearing.

Learning more than one language

Today we know that children can learn more than one language at a time. Learning a second language, whether at home or through immersion or bilingual education, is beneficial to a child’s later education.

Infants exposed to multiple languages at the same time during the first seven months of life can develop fluency in all those languages with no accent. They learn languages at similar rates and do not prefer one language over the other. This is because they build separate, but equally strong, language systems in their brains for each of the languages they hear. These separate systems allow children to learn more than one language without becoming confused.

It is easiest to learn second and third languages before age 12, because of the way the brain develops. Research shows that children who learn more than one language during their early years tend to do better than single-language speakers, academically and socially, in later years.

Learning an Aboriginal language from an early age in the home, child care, pre-school or community actually helps children become stronger learners.

What you can do to help

Children learn language through practice, trial and error, and most of all by communicating with the people in their lives.  Young children learn language faster if they hear a lot of words - in any language.

Speak and interact with infants and young children to make sure they can hear and try out any of the languages you want them to learn.