Learning a foreign language is something that can begin at an early age and pay dividends for the rest of your child's life. It can impact your child's career in a variety of ways. The obvious benefit is when the language is required on the job. Just having "Spanish - Fluent" on your son's resume will allow him to apply for more jobs than otherwise. A more indirect benefit is when the language, irrelevant to the job, happens to be spoken by the interviewer. A candidate of mine applying for a job in Tokyo which required English and Japanese found that his interviewer was from Spain and since my candidate also spoke Spanish they ended up speaking in that language the entire interview. My candidate left a fantastic impression on the employer.
Language can also give hints about your son's personality to an employer? Language is very closely linked with culture so employing some simple math: second language = second culture/bi-cultural = a child who is more tolerant of people who are different = better team player. A study published in Psychological Science states that bilingual people are generally better thinkers and are better problem solvers. Problem solving and teamwork, both very common requirements on a new grad job description. It is also important to note that the cultural exposure and cognitive benefits of studying a second language do not necessarily require our children to become fluent in that language.
Problem solving ability is not limited to the workplace of course and a second language can be seen as positive on a college application as well. Studies have shown that kids who speak two languages do better in school. Again with the simple math, better grades = acceptance to better schools = passing the academic pedigree screening at more companies.
There are few potential disadvantages to learning a second language but it is worth considering them if only to dispute them.
- A lack of native fluency in either language.
- Mixing up words or not knowing how to say something completely in one language. It does seem that this is more pronounced in kids and that as they grow into adults, their vocabulary in both languages expands along with their understanding of when to use which language. There is a delay which I have certainly seen in the case of my daughter and son but it disappeared around age 6 or 7 for my son and I expect it will disappear sooner for my daughter as she is much more talkative.
- Lack of cultural identity. If my son speaks English and Japanese then which culture can he call his own? Is this confusing?
Now that we have decided to teach our kids a second language, choosing which one to learn is an important decision along with how to go about it. If the parents speak different languages then it is probably best to focus on those two, whatever they may be. The Wall Street Journal recently stated that demand for US workers who speak Chinese or Spanish will continue to grow through the next decade so if you have a choice, go with one of those for your kids. For children who are learning something other than English as a native language it would probably make sense to focus on English as their second one. Mandarin and Spanish are both widely spoken globally but my experience has been that when it comes to employment, English is in more demand as a second language .
For parents who speak different languages, the recommended approach is for each parent to speak their native language exclusively when talking with their kids. I speak from experience when I tell you that this is easier said that done. My wife speaks Japanese and I speak English and the kids test and challenge us constantly. If we give in they quickly fall back on whichever language is easier for them. For parents who only speak one language between the two of them an outside tutor is the most effective for young children. This could be through a school or a nanny or babysitter. Research shows the need for children to be exposed to a language 30% of their waking time to learn to speak it fluently. This is a big commitment for monolingual parents and it is important to understand what it will take before diving in.
While the above may sound intimidating, it is never too late to start learning a language. Chances are your child will have some foreign language in high school and can certainly choose to take one as an elective in college. We can encourage their study with the hopes that our kid's grasp of the language will improve. Try scheduling the next family vacation to Mexico rather than Colorado. Or, one or both parents could take up study of the new language along with their child. It is never too late for us to try learning something new either.