Q. Our son Jerry is nearly 3 and almost ready for nursery school. I'd like him to go to a bilingual one but my wife is afraid it would be bad for him to learn two languages almost at once. Could this confuse a child or make him stutter?
A. There is probably a study somewhere (there always is) that makes these very claims, but we think the reasons for learning a second language might cause pyschological problems, rather than the learning itself.
It could be the mother's return to work, or the family's move to a foreign country that could upset a child, not his exposure to Spanish at nursery school or to conversation in the marketplace.Another language for a child is minor compared to this dislocation.
A child also can be upset when he thinks his parents need him to succeed. This is the message you telegraph when you get that clutch in your gut when he is a ringbearer in a wedding or you take him to visit your mother-in-law.Even a Two expects this occasional pressure, but if it happens every time he tries to learn a skill, then he knows he must win for you as well as for himself, and that is quite a burden.
It is hard to remember that our children, as de Chardin said, are not ourselves. They are responsible for their own achievements and their won nonachievements, too.
So long as Jerry knows he is leaning for himself, however, we think he will enjoy a good billingual nursery school. Although he wont't become fluent unless he speaks his new language every day, and you won't think he remembers a word of it two years from now, he will profit form it in a rather secret way -- the knowledge will be stored in his brain. Once a second lanuage is programmed in a circuit of the brain, those cells will be receptive to it -- and to some extent, to all foreign languages -- for the rest of his life. i
According the late Wilder Penfield, Canada's brilliant neurosurgeon, the more circuits in use before the age of 8, the easier later learning will be.
Other experts agree, but not all think the pivotal age is so early.
According to Dorothy Goodman, director of the International School at 3100 Macomb St. NW, the turning point is 11 or 12.
While the left side of the brain is the speech center (for right-handed people), the right side of the brain, Goodman says, is uncommitted until about that age, and that's where other speech centers will locate.
"After that, it takes good, hard slogging to learn a language," says Goodman, "and even then many believe it's too late to catch the rhythm, the music of the language."
Not only is an extra language psychologically safe, but Goodman believes it is vital. Knowing only one language is a "modern aberration," she says, dating back to the nationalism of the French revolution.
"It is ideal for the child to learn to communicate with as many languages as possible," says Goodman. "Affluent families in history have always done this. The cook was Czech, the maid was French, the chauffeur Bulgarian. the child learned to communicate with them all and when he grew up, foreign languages were easy."
Unless you live like that today, or unless you live in a neighborhood with many immigrants, your child is going to have a tough time with high-school Spanish.
To open these circuits early, Jerry needs to speak a second language almost every day, either now or in the next few years.
As Penfield said, "if you can just give a child a chance to start to make a frame for another language, you have altered his whole mechanism within the brain."