Early childhood is the best time to learn a second language, according to Dr. Laura Ann Petitto, a neuropsychologist and the director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory for Language and Child Development at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
The study, conducted at McGill University in Montreal, concludes that children under seven who are systematically and equally exposed to two languages are more likely to speak both languages with the same level of proficiency than children whose exposure to a second language is staggered or begins in later childhood. “The earlier a child is exposed to two languages, the more likely the child will have equal and full mastery of the two completely different languages, and the more likely that the child will speak each language accent free,” said Petitto in a telephone interview.
The question is whether the brain is neurologically set to only acquire one language. “That seems implausible to me,” says Petitto. “If the way in which two languages develop were similar, then that would teach us that the human brain is capable of learning multiple languages and that it was not set for only one language; that it might instead be set to be sensitive to the patterns that are in human language. And given that it’s set to the patterns that are in human language, it could learn many languages.”
The study compared children who learned French, English, Russian and Spanish, as well as sign language. The issues of the relative “difficulty” of a language as an obstacle, on the one hand, and the perceived similarity between two languages to facilitate learning, on the other, are irrelevant when it comes to language acquisition. “Russian has a morphological structure that is totally alien to English and French. It is highly inflected. Neither French nor English has the degree of inflection one finds in Russian,” says Petitto. “The human brain doesn’t see any language as hard or easy. The human brain sees languages equally and learns them equally. It doesn’t discriminate.”
At issue is the view among some educators and policy makers that children must have a solid knowledge of their mother tongue before they are exposed to a second (or even a third) language to avoid problems of “language contamination,” that is, elements which will impede mastery of their mother tongue.
This has been the approach which has guided the Quebec government, for instance, in its language policy pertaining to children whose mother tongue is French. French-speaking children attending French public school in Quebec can only begin to learn a second language (essentially English) after completing grade 3. This, ostensibly, is to ensure a solid acquisition of the mother tongue. By comparison, children attending English school in Quebec are not impeded from learning French at any level. As a result, a large number of English schools across the province have adopted a “French immersion policy,” which varies in each school and in each district, but where essentially children do as much as 50 % of the school curriculum in French.
“The view that you should first expose a child to one language and later expose that child to another language, and this way they’d be stronger, flies in the face of human biology,” responds Petitto. “It flies in the face of everything we know about human brain development and about cognitive development. It’s a view that’s not substantiated by anything we know about the human developmental system,” continues Petitto. “It’s like a formula; if you want the child to be fully bilingual, the child has to be exposed early in life with systematic input across multiple rich and varied contexts. If you want a fully bilingual child, like two monolingual children in one brain, that’s the formula!”
There are undeniable and possibly irreversible social consequences to adopting a language policy which gives certain citizens access to a language and not others. That is, separating two languages by law is not a neutral thing to do, according to Petitto. “Not only are you ensuring that those children who get exposed to a language only as of the fourth grade will have less experience with the language and will have been exposed passed critical brain periods, but the children are likely to never be bilingual. They are likely to have accents, and will likely be seen by the other as not being a full member. If two languages are separated by law, it has consequences that are bigger than just language.”
In direct response to Quebec’s current language policy Petitto adds, “If the Quebec government wants French-speaking children, they are doing the right thing. If it wants a population that’s bilingual, then they are doing the wrong thing.”
Julia D’Amedeo lives and works in Montreal.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 1.