x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Better baby talk

Bilingualism for infants is an attribute that can be lost rather than acquired, making language learning key to early childhood development.

Everyone knows babies are little sponges. What we didn't know is that the sponge for learning a language has a shelf-life.

As The National reports today, research by scientists seems to indicate that bilingualism comes naturally to infants, for a time at least. The findings support the long-held belief that the earlier a child is indulged in a second language, the easier it will be for them to master it. Bilingualism, as such, is an attribute that can be lost rather than one that needs to be acquired.

The implications for the UAE are significant. Both Emiratis and expatriates are increasingly keen for their children to be educated in private schools that have very strong language programmes, especially English.

These findings should encourage parents to expose babies to more than one language, preferably by the age of six months, although researchers' opinions vary on when this capacity to absorb begins to wane.

Ironically, this should also be a rallying cry to preserve the sometimes marginalised Arabic language. Multilingualism is to be aspired to, but not at the expense of the mother tongue.

Adults, meanwhile, shouldn't stop their second-language study because of this news. Sure, your sponge is less absorbent than your child's, but that doesn't mean there is ever a time to stop learning.