How do young children learn a second language?

Mother: “My husband and I have a two-year-old toddler and a baby. Our children are currently not coming into contact with a language other than Dutch. The world is becoming more and more international and there is rightly attention for other languages ​​in education, among other things. However, as far as we are concerned, this does not alter the fact that it is important to also learn to speak, understand and understand Dutch well.

Talk to NRC

Subscribers can comment at the bottom of this article. Here you can read more about responding to

Our question: does it increase the later language sensitivity of our children if they come into contact with other languages ​​at an early age, and if so how best to deal with this? And isn’t it at the expense of a good understanding of the Dutch language, for example if they now listen to English music or watch English TV? From what age would it be useful to come into contact with another language and what would be the exact benefit of it?”

Name is known to the editor. (This section is anonymous, because difficulties in parenting are sensitive). Would you like to present a dilemma in parenting? Send your question or reactions to [email protected]

Immerse yourself in the language

Sharon Unsworth: „Occasionally playing an English song does not help much. If you want to teach children a foreign language at this age, you should immerse them in that language. For example, by looking for a childminder or possibly an au pair who speaks another language. As a result, everything that a child experiences is automatically interpreted in that second language. And it must also constantly use that language in interaction.

“That immersion has no adverse effect on Dutch. In fact, as you suggest in your question, children who grow up with two languages ​​are often better able to think and speak about language than children who grow up with one language. But even without such immersion, we see that children who come into contact with other languages ​​in primary school tend to be more positive about language learning, and towards people who speak other languages.

“Older children learn a foreign language faster than younger children, by the way, because they have more cognitive capacities.”

Bilingual environment

Elma Blom: “There is a lot of discussion in science about the best time to learn a second language. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether you start as a baby, toddler or primary school. Roughly speaking, we can say that it gets more difficult from puberty. In particular, learning a new language without an accent and the grammatical rules of the new language are difficult when you are a bit older.

“Language learning ability is associated with ‘critical periods’ in development in which the brain is like windows open to learn something.

“If you want to make your children native speakers in another language in a monolingual household, you must ensure that they receive a sufficient supply of sufficient quality and actively use the language, for example in a bilingual nursery or a bilingual after-school care, so that they speak the language with peers.

“The question is whether you would rather choose another language. English belongs to the same language family as Dutch, and moreover they gradually pick up on it, it is so present everywhere. If you really want to make your children more sensitive to language, opt for immersion in a completely different language, such as Spanish or Chinese. As long as they come into sufficient contact with their mother tongue, this is not at the expense of their development.”