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According to the National Institutes of Health, the brains of bilingual teens are better at focusing on important tasks and are better at multi-tasking than are children who know only one language. Learning a second language early – before the teen years – enhances brain function. It’s a good thing.

This means that if your household is bilingual – if one or more of the adults is a native speaker of a language other than English – that’s an advantage for the children. Those adults should feel encouraged to speak in their home language and children should be encouraged to learn that language and English simultaneously. Research indicates that even small children who learn two languages at once suffer no ill consequences – and they gain the great advantage of a more nimble brain.

If your household is not bilingual, then it’s a good idea to enroll your children in classes in whatever language you choose. The ability to learn language is at its peak in the early years, up until about age 12. Children younger than 12 learn languages easily, much easier than you can or than older children do. The areas of the brain devoted to language learning shut down at puberty – the window of opportunity closes – so that learning a second language before the end of elementary school makes better sense than waiting for high school.

In addition, children who already are fluent in a second language find it easier throughout life to learn additional languages. For them, the window to language acquisition never closes because it was propped open early. So there’s no need right now to try to guess what language will be most “useful” to your child’s life and career as an adult. All languages are valuable because learning any second language makes learning all languages easier.

So make this a goal for your family this year. Learn a new language. Use online programs, community classes, CDs or whatever resources are available to you. My public library offers language learning CDs and also offers a free online program for the most popular languages – all this is free! Make a point of working diligently on learning the new language by practicing every day, in the car, and, especially, with your child.

Give your child the gift of a second language. He will enjoy being bilingual and he’ll be smarter too!

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.