How Much Exposure Do Babies Need to Naturally Pick Up a Second Language?
January 20, 2005 12:28 PM   Subscribe

If I wanted my baby to learn a second language from a family member who speaks it natively, how many hours per week minimum would they need to spend together? I know the more the better, but I am trying to figure out if four or five hours a week will do the trick if we are extremely consistent and do this for many years.
posted by limitedpie to Writing & Language (12 answers total)
As much as possible, and they have to keep practicing it for years. I learned spanish from a maid when I was little, that was a couple of hours a day for a few years. (I was between 2-5 years old)
posted by defcom1 at 12:32 PM on January 20, 2005

An hour a day doesn't seem like enough for it to sink in. My little guy is coming on 2 years old now, and from birth his Mom has spoken exclusively german to him, I spoke english and his daycare provider spoke french.

In terms of hours per day he'd be looking at at least 5 hours of french/day, 4-5 hours of German and whatever english I could fit in between getting home and his bedtime (normally 4 hours or so).

His vocabulary currently has a higher proportion of french words than german and english, but that will likely change as we've moved him from the daycare provider to an english nursery school (not due to the languages). As Mom is on maternity leave for the next year, I'd expect to see his french skills drop somewhat and german come to the forefront
posted by smcniven at 12:53 PM on January 20, 2005

I think you need more than five hours a week.

I started "learning" french in the early grades, for about an hour a day. It had absolutely no effect on me.

We then moved to eastern Canada just as I entered middle school, and I was put into french-immersion. I was reasonably fluent by the end of the year, and remain so a few decades later.
posted by bonehead at 1:32 PM on January 20, 2005

If your goal is fluency for the child, some immersion exposure (if possible) might be useful - that is, trips to a country which speaks the second language. This is just a guess, based on my own language experience, and a well-spoken bilingual friend who spent summers speaking her other language. Foreign language Music might be an alternative aid, every language has it's childrens music.

I think it depends on the nature of their relationship, to some extent, and whether this family member is a strong native speaker with weak 2nd language skills, or essentially bilingual. A kid is probably going to speak what is easiest, and if it sees that it can get away by using what everyone else is speaking, it might try. It might also develop a confiding relationship with that family member, which would reinforce the language.

Given all that, I think 5hrs/week is not enough. Some longer periods here and there would be useful, a day, weekend, etc.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 2:00 PM on January 20, 2005

Immersion is the answer. Move to the country of choice, or everyone should speak it at home. There should be some significant research on the subject...
posted by scazza at 2:14 PM on January 20, 2005

There are other points to consider, too.

In one couple I know, the father was born and raised in Mexico. He's perfectly bilingual, and would like for his son to be, also. (The mother speaks passable Spanish.) The couple has worked with their child since he was born in an attempt to get him to speak Spanish. For a long time, the father only spoke Spanish to him. This worked for a time, but when the kid was 2-1/2 he began to rebel, refused to speak Spanish and refused to respond to Spanish. When the kid, who is now four, spends time with his cousins (who are all Spanish speakers), he speaks some, but not much. This couple hypothesizes that if they were to speak Spanish together, at home, around their child, he might be more willing to learn.

I know another couple in which the mother was raised in Argentina and the father in France. The mother speaks Spanish to her son, and the father speaks French. This kid, who is also four now, refuses to speak anything but English. Why? Again the couple hypothesizes that it's because that the common shared language they have is English, so that's what they speak to each other.

So I guess what I'm saying, in a convoluted way, is that based on personal observation, I'd agree with those advocating immersion, and as deeply as possible.
posted by jdroth at 2:26 PM on January 20, 2005

Move to the country of choice, or everyone should speak it at home. There should be some significant research on the subject...

Um, scazza, no. Moving to the country of choice isn't the answer. There are little things like jobs and family that require us to stay put. The question, in case you missed it, is not how to get our child to be bilingual-- but what is the minimum exposure needed to help our child be bilingual. I think total immersion as you suggest would be the maximum exposure. Quite the opposite of what we have in mind.

To everyone else, thank you for your input. It looks like we might have to make 10 to 15 hours a week from the consensus here (and perhaps worry about rebellion too!) Drat!
posted by wtfwjd? at 2:41 PM on January 20, 2005

I'd think that given the elasticity of an infant's brain, more than quantity of exposure, quality would be paramount. I mean I'm sure there's a critical threshold for quantity, but there's also diminishing returns after a point.

In any case, being bilingual since childhood seems to be a good thing.
posted by Gyan at 3:51 PM on January 20, 2005

My parents spoke Swedish, while we lived in an English speaking country when I was a kid (0-7 years). One phenomenon that you probably will meet is what both me and my brother (English, German and Swedish for him) did which was to move one language out of our head completely and insist we didn't understand it all in phases. The very next year, presto we were fluent again. Or the languages would merge and I would have no idea which one I was speaking.
Grandparents (In Swedish):- Please speak Swedish.
me (in English): - But I am!

It will take a lot more than a few hours a week to keep both of those languages developing in your child. Childrens records, films and books in the second language, other children that can speak it as well, and many more hours with someone who speaks it. If you understand and can speak a little yourself would be great for your child to be able to use it when s/he's not at the other family members house. When school-time arrives, classes for reading and writing in that language is a must as well.
posted by dabitch at 5:39 PM on January 20, 2005

jdroth - what you are describing are those phases I was trying to explain. Both me and my brother did that at around the ages of 4 and 8. One of the languages would simply "leave" my brain and I could not understand at all, all of a sudden. I wasn't trying to rebel when I told my parents to not speak that old language in front of my friends and other language-refusal-fits, for some reason I thought they were the only people in the world who knew Swedish. ;)
posted by dabitch at 5:45 PM on January 20, 2005

(so tell those couples you know to hang in there, the languages come back again later, and just as sudden.)
posted by dabitch at 5:46 PM on January 20, 2005

I think the infant brain elasticity theory on language is a little misleading. I'd bet it takes just about as much time for an infant to learn a new language as it does for an adult; the main difference is that an adult already has a default language to 'fall back on', while the child won't categorize it as a 'second' (& therefore superfluous) language so will be more likely to pick it up.

By all means take advantage of the fact that the kid hasn't yet developed a resistance to learning new things, but don't expect it to happen magically so much more easily for the kid than it would for you.
posted by mdn at 7:34 PM on January 20, 2005

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