Do Kids Really Need A Second Language?

How important is it for a child to know a second language? 


Little boy going on vacations trip with suitcase at airport


When Miss 11 was a baby, I remember a well-meaning relative saying to me “Make sure you teach her the Croatian language”.

Although I would have loved to teach her a second language, it didn’t make sense to me because English would be the only language spoken in our home.  I’m a first generation Australian from a Croatian/Bosnian background while my husband is of Dutch/Irish/Italian descent. Which language should we pick?

Croatian was the first language I spoke as a kid, and I learnt English by watching TV. My husband, on the other hand, only spoke English at home. Although his father was Dutch, he never spoke Dutch and never taught his kids any Dutch (apart from a few swear words!).

From age 8 until I graduated from high school at age 17, I took Croatian language classes every Saturday morning. I also studied Italian in primary and high school for 6 years and French in high school for 4 years.

When I was in Year 10, I was studying Italian, French and Croatian, plus English of course. Was I ever confused? Yes, considering I had the same teacher for Italian and French! I remember confusing salut and ciao, forgetting which class I was in!

I guess you could call me a bit of a language nerd.

Did it serve me any purpose?

I rarely have an opportunity to speak Italian or French unless I am on holidays in Europe, and although I am fluent in Croatian and my parents speak to me in Croatian, I have a tendency to become lazy and revert back to English.

So being bilingual didn’t get me a job with the United Nations or as an interpreter for SBS or Reuters, but there have been benefits to knowing another language.

Firstly, and obviously, it has helped me while travelling. In Europe I acted as the family’s translator, navigating my way around Paris and asking for une baguette s’il vous plait.

While in Croatia, my husband, who became weirdly fascinated with village life and wanted to know the ins and outs of farming, was able to ask every question to his heart’s delight. The farming conversation was a bilingual workout (think, Nat, what’s the Croatian word for water pump?).

My language skills also helped my kids while they tried to communicate with non-English speaking Croatian children at a park in Zagreb. The English and Croatian parties weren’t having much luck in getting their points across, so they came to me for assistance.

I also received special treatment from some of the Croatians we met while travelling. They would say “You’re one of us”, and treat us like locals rather than like tourists. It also meant they could not try to rip me off!

But are there any other benefits of knowing another language, apart from being handy while travelling?

According to a 2013 Science World Report article, Learning New Language Has Significant Impact On Brain Structure, researchers from Lund University found that learning a new language contributes to brain growth, while researchers from a Montreal hospital and Oxford University discovered that learning a second language contributes to brain development responsible for functions such as memory, consciousness, thought and language.

Kids who may otherwise struggle with English language concepts may find it beneficial to learn a second language in order to strengthen their language skills. It’s a great way to encourage oral language development in young children.

The benefits of learning other languages go beyond improving brain development and literacy skills. By learning other languages, I have gained an appreciation of many cultures, which in my opinion is important considering we live in a globalised society.

Being bilingual also strengthens employment prospects. Employers who deal with international clients are increasingly looking for candidates who have international experience, either through working overseas or being bilingual.

Despite the arguments for learning a second language, a 2014 report by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) found that the number of Australian students learning a second language has declined significantly. During the 1960s, 40% of Australian students studied a second language. In 2014, only 12% of Australian students studied a second language.

In response to these findings, the Australian Federal Government has been conducting a trial with 40 preschools around Australia, where a second language is being taught using interactive apps and games. There has been discussion around whether it should be made compulsory to learn a second language at school.

But for some kids, studying a second language is too daunting. Kids with learning challenges and special needs have enough problems trying to keep up their literacy and numeracy skills. Throwing a second language in the mix seems counterproductive.

By making learning a second language compulsory in high school, are we adding to the stress levels of students who are already under immense pressure to exceed in their academic abilities?

Regardless of whether a child learns a second language or not, it should be up parents to decide, taking into consideration their own child’s needs and abilities.

We have not pushed our children to learn another language. Miss 11 started learning Japanese at school when she was in third grade. Miss 7 has a keen interest in other languages- she wants to study Croatian and just this evening, she was in bed reading the Lonely Planet Italian phrasebook.

My kids know some basic Croatian words that they use with their grandparents, and I taught them how to say “What’s your name? My name is…” in French (which they used when they met French kids at the parks in Paris).

I would love for them to be fluent in a second language, but I can’t force this upon them.

All that I can do is expose them to other cultures as much as I can, and that’s where family travel plays a vital role.

Parlez-vous une autre langue ? Do you speak another language ? Are your kids bilingual ? Should learning a second language be compulsory in all schools? Share your thoughts with me!


12 thoughts on “Do Kids Really Need A Second Language?”

  1. I think a second language is a good thing because while learning it, it helps open up their mind. And when they are older, it’s always a good fall back. Not just in terms of travelling but also in terms of jobs. So many banks look for individuals who speak a second language. If you’re ever stuck for a job, you can do freelance translation work. If you find yourself in a foreign country as a trailing spouse, you can work at one of the Embassy’s with a foreign language. I wish I spoke a second language fluently! #fybf

    • Yes I worked in banking for many years and the bank favoured anyone who could speak a second language, especially an Asian language. Very true!

  2. I hate how monolingual Australia is. I learnt Italian from Grade 3 to half way through Year 11 when I dropped it. I enjoyed learning it, but I felt at such a disadvantage to my classmates who were all from Italian backgrounds and grew up speaking the language at home. I could read and write it quite well, but I had trouble speaking and listening to it. That’s totally the wrong way to learn a foreign language! Listening and speaking first, like how kids learn to communicate. My little boy is half Korean and I would really like for him to become bilingual, or at least fluent in Korean. His dad speaks Korean to him, but he mostly hears English. We might have to spend some time back in Korea to improve his Korean language skills. I don’t want him to be unable to communicate with his grandparents, uncles and cousins etc. Like you said, you learn so much more about a culture by learning the language. And I learnt so much about English and English grammar, which is innate to us, while learning Italian and later Korean. Learning a language later in life is also good for exercising your brain and can help ward off memory problems. I think it’s really important to learn a second language (or third, fourth, fifth etc. like so many Europeans I’ve met over the years).

    • That’s a really valid point about teaching a second language verbally before learning to read and write it. It makes a lot of sense, considering toddlers learn to speak before they learn to read and write. I also read that learning a language as an adult can still have the same positive effects on the brain as it does learning it as a youngster. So it’s never too late!

  3. I started learning French in year 8. I enjoyed learning it but had so many other things going on that I didn’t continue with it. My mum put me into Italian lessons when I was about 8 but I think the teaching approach was wrong because all I can remember from it was that there were male and female words and I didn’t grasp that. And I tried learning Japanese at university but unfortunately the classes catered to the many Chinese and Taiwanese students who could already read the kanji and could therefore understand the meaning. They were streaks ahead of me, trying to learn the characters, the pronunciation, the grammar and how to read and write it. Now I am living in Cambodia and I’ve started learning Khmer. I think it will be a slow process but I’d like to be able to have a conversation with people.
    But I really wish we had learnt a second language from grade one or earlier. Children learn so much easier than adults. I was interested in your arguments against making it compulsory and I’d like to know how they go in places like the Netherlands where I believe it is compulsory to learn English and usually several other languages – at least that’s what Dutch people I have met have told me.

    • I’ll have to ask our Dutch relatives about how children cope learning English, in particular those children who may have other learning challenges or special needs. I know in Croatia children learn English but not until they are about 7 or 8 years old I think.
      It’s interesting to read your thoughts about how you were taught Italian and Japanese and the approach being wrong. I’m now curious whether many of my friends who learnt a second language in high school felt the same, and whether my experiences were different because I had known another language from such a young age.

      • It is interesting you mention the different style of teaching. I was talking to a lady here, who is Spanish, and she had problems learning Khmer, particularly in a group situation, because they catered to native English speakers and the phonetics were all quite different for Spanish and English speakers. Also the grammar in Khmer is structured more similarly to Spanish than English. I think the way you are taught definitely makes a difference.
        It would also be interesting to know how countries like the Netherlands go about language lessons for children with learning challenges.

        • That’s really interesting Sam, I wonder how that lady would have found learning Khmer if she had been taught in a way that aligned the language with Spanish, given that the structure of the Khmer grammar is more closely aligned with Spanish than English. You have given me lots of food for thought, so thank you!

  4. I regret not speaking Spanish to my daughter as a baby, now she is 6 and is fascinated by all things Spanish and Mexican. I’m going to enrol her in saturday spanish school next year (even though they are learning Mandarin at school) because I think she will pick it up quickly if I can start speaking to her at home.

    • At least she is interested now, it might be easier for her to learn if she is keen. I’ll be doing the same with Miss 7 next year 🙂

  5. I teach my daughter slovak language because I’m from Slovakia…even though we live in the U.S. I think knowing more than one language is so beneficial! I’d love to teach her french and german as well but she’s only 5 months old and don’t want to confuse her too much! I think I’ll start with another language by the time she’s 2 though!


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