Children are masterminds when it comes to acquiring a language: they observe, repeat, connect then use whatever expression they deem relevant in the particular situation. It is amazing how they deduct the rules of conjugation, plural, cases, etc. just by hearing what we, adults, say to them, around them every day. My two and a half year old daughter understands and speaks three languages (at different levels) but she is not a linguistic genius, as much as I would love to think that. She just simply does not question why there are three words for “cat”, why grandma speaks to her in a different way than “abuelito” or why the characters in her colorful books talk like mommy at work. She does not question it, just accepts it and does her best to use the right language for the right situation – it is truly fascinating even for a language buff like myself.
Most children will acquire language(s) effortlessly, giving the impression that the process is actually quite simple and straightforward. We do not need to teach them grammar rules to use the language because they make their own connections, deductions, and they somehow have the rules lined up in their head so that they can slowly but steadily start speaking more and more correctly in the language (s) they use and hear every day.
Many parents think that they need to speak “baby” to their children and that exposing them to another language would just confuse them. However, contrary to the popular belief, children who grow up in a bilingual environment do not necessarily start speaking later or have trouble properly acquiring their first language. Strangers praise my daughter daily for her eloquence – her range of vocabulary and use of complicated structure amazes me as well, but this is not surprising if we think that her brain started processing languages very early on which made her open and accepting to the new features in each language. Also keep in mind that in many countries, such as India, Spain, South Africa, Belgium, growing up bilingual is the norm and not some sort of fad or dreadful experience as some of the conservative adults may think. We tend to forget that considering the world’s population, people who speak at least two languages outnumber those who are monolingual.
So parents should not be afraid of exposing their children to languages and the more they speak, read, and communicate with their children from the day they are born, the more natural and effortless this process will be for the entire family, and they will all enjoy the cognitive and social advantages of being bilingual.
Don’t forget, although the ability of acquiring a first language successfully starts from newborn state and begins to decline from age six, language learning is a life long journey.