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The gift of tongues: More languages gives kids better brains

BILINGUAL FAN: Alex Spengler, of Goonellabah, with his three-year-old son Arthur encourages his boy to speak and read Portuguese wherever and whenever possible.
BILINGUAL FAN: Alex Spengler, of Goonellabah, with his three-year-old son Arthur encourages his boy to speak and read Portuguese wherever and whenever possible. Marc Stapelberg

THE days of non-English speaking immigrant children abandoning their parents' languages are becoming a thing of the past, with experts agreeing that bilingualism is only a good thing.

At Goonellabah not-for-profit childcare centre, Care-Ring, there are several bilingual kids who speak languages other than English.

"Last year we had quite a few children with two languages, and one family had three," Care-Ring's director Tammy Everingham said.

"We always encourage them to use the language they feel comfortable with."

Care-Ring parent, Brazilian-born Alex Spengler, felt more knowledge about bilingualism was needed in early childhood education to support his three-year-old son Arthur.

Arthur was having a mild delay in language development and Mr Spengler wanted to find out why, and if it was a problem.

Last week Mr Spengler and Care-Ring put on a seminar in Lismore on bilingualism funded by a Department of Education grant. The event brought a surprise crowd of more than 100 parents and educators from as far away as Toowoomba and the Gold Coast.

University of Western Sydney early childhood expert Dr Christine Jones Diaz was flown up to address the seminar.

Due to its assimilation hangover, Dr Jones Diaz said Australia was actually considered a "language graveyard" because of the number of languages being lost in individuals.

And losing languages, it turns out, is a bad thing: Speaking more than one language is now seen as an asset for a country and an individual.

In other regions, such as Europe, speaking up to six languages is not uncommon, or in Asia multiple dialects are understood by many.

It's also better for kids' brain development, and their sense of cultural identity. Maintaining their parent's language helps children feel at home in both cultures, rather than separated from both.

Back here in Australia, the wheel is finally turning.

Mr Spengler said kids who were learning more than one language under the age of five years often took a little longer to start speaking fully as their growing brains processed twice the amount of information, but that was okay.

"From zero to five years old is the best time to do it," Mr Spengler said. "Kids can learn two to three languages at one time."

His research has reinforced his and partner Cristina Massia's approach to speaking Portuguese with Arthur wherever possible, even in public, and also reading in Portuguese with him.

"Learning languages is a window to a whole new world," Mr Spengler said. "It actually makes people more tolerant and respectful, instead of being afraid, scared or aggressive. It's a richness in seeing the world from many different perspectives.

"It's good for Australia, not just for economic reasons but for social reasons."

Topics:  education language



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