You don’t need to teach kids a second language

My ex-husband’s father is from Peru.  So when we were engaged, we had a big party in Peru. I was shocked to see that my husband never learned Spanish, so he couldn’t talk to anyone. I had already learned French and a little bit of Hebrew and German, so it was not difficult to teach myself a little bit of Spanish before the trip.

I gave a speech in Spanish and I talked to people in Spanish. And it was fun. Learning a new language is fun for me. (Interesting side note: most people with autism are good with a second language. It’s all about memorizing rules—our favorite type of conversation!)

My son got the book Thing Explainer  for his birthday. I’ve been reading it. It was created by a former rocket scientist from NASA who was fascinated by how people use specialized language. And how doing so makes complicated things seem more complicated. But if you know a lot about a topic, you are able to explain it in very simple language. (Which explains why it’s great interview and resume advice to not use jargon when you answer questions.)

So he wrote about all sorts of things, like rocket ships, sewage systems and cell biology, using only the most common 1000 words in the English language. The first thing I noticed while reading the book is that in the most common 1000 words, most are verbs. Nouns are specialized words and verbs are more generalized. This is why the author talks about how things work vs what things are called. The second thing I noticed is that if you have not learned a language before, you don’t quite understand the concept of making up sentences with words you know instead of fretting over words you don’t know.

My ex, who is at our house a lot, picked up the book, and I said, “That would really help you to learn Spanish.”

He said, “That ship has sailed.”

(If you used only the most common 1000 words you would say “That boat has gone.” Idioms are the last thing people learn when they learn a language, and the book makes it clear why.)

Okay. So my Ex is never going to learn Spanish. But my Ex was so good in school that he went to college at 16. He plays piano. And he was in the national boys choir. Which is better? Music? Language? Math?

I’m thinking it doesn’t matter if someone knows a second language. Not because it’s not helpful to brain development. It is.  But it’s an ill-defined requirement for those desperate to be “well rounded”.

The benefits of a second language are mostly in the brain—the brain develops a different way if you learn a second language as a kid. But there are many other ways to get this same brain benefit (like learning to play a musical instrument at a young age). So it doesn’t make sense that we favor kids learning a language instead of, for example, playing an instrument.

Moreover, we know that after age 8 the aptitude for this sort of learning plummets because brain plasticity plummets. Schools have no way to teach language or a musical instrument before age 8 (except in special circumstances) because it requires so much compliance at home. So, ironically, the best way to do this sort of teaching is via homeschooling.

Luckily for the people who are not interested in translating “sewage plant” to “water cleaner,” there are lots of ways to make your brain stretch and build new connections. There is, in fact, a world of don’t-get-Alzheimer’s data that might be as beneficial to brain fitness as learning a second language if you are older than eight.

My Ex has spent his life going to Peru to visit family. Since he didn’t speak the language, he looked around a lot, and has a keen sense of geography, which is a boon for brain development when it comes to spatial thinking. No one can be well-rounded because there’s too much to learn. But probably spatial thinking and musical thinking are equally useful compared to linguistic thinking.

Probably those second-language mavens are making those tradeoffs as well. Just the other way around.



24 replies
  1. MBL
    MBL says:

    I just ordered the Thing Explainer book. The author Randall Munroe is the the xkcd guy and that was enough to sell me.

    I can attest to the efficacy of caveman speak. Years ago I screwed up and went to the wrong station in Madrid to take an overnight train to Lisbon. It was midnight and I asked about a refund and they said I had to come back the next day.

    So I did. My Spanish sucked but I understood that I was not going to be getting a refund from the clerk who was puffing away in front of the NO FUMAR sign. So,in Spanish, I indignantly demanded a refund. It translated to something like this:

    Last night, here a man to me to speak here today for refund now!

    While he appeared to be somewhat amused (I also suck at being forceful,) his answer was still “no.” So I stormed out through the exit door. And, upon realizing that I had left all of my luggage, stormed in through the entrance and was about to storm back out the exit when the guy called me over, chuckled and gave me a full refund.

    The whole thing cracks me up because when I travel in Europe people usually assume I am Canadian or British because I am so non-pushy and I was not actually entitled to a refund. In my defense the first guy really did tell me to come back the next day for a refund (because he wouldn’t be there…)

    The Alzheimer link was especially good. It inspired me do some Lumosity. Which is great, but goes against the whole bedtime wind down and get lots of sleep rules. So it may be a wash. But I did get a high score on Memory Matrix.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Omg, I can just imagine how that whole scene went down! Hilarious!!

      The Alzheimer’s thing is interesting to me because a friend of mine has been going through this with one of her parents. Some of the info I have read suggests that these exercises only slow the inevitable. It is a horrible disease, but I wonder if early detection can help or if these brain exercises make a huge difference at the end of it all.

  2. Julie
    Julie says:

    YES! I grew up bilingually and my parents were pretty obssessed about me sounding like a native speaker in both languages. Now I realise how ridiculous that was (as if bilingualism were a predictor of success).
    I would say however that IF you have two languages in the home (or you live abroad), you might as well pass them both on to your child (as it is easier than teaching them the violin)

  3. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    You are killing me! I’ve wanted to homeschool since before my oldest was 4 years old. His grandparents only speak Spanish. So when my son got into thespanish immersion elementary school I was so proud to know he would be able to speak to them and have something that I never had. I never learned Spanish. Even though I took Spanish from 7th grade til graduation and always made A’s and earned many awards for my performance in class. My kid cam home literally every day asking if he could stay home the next. Every morning begging not to go. He learned more Spanish in The few days I made him go to kindergarten than I had learned in school. So all that learning helped me justify/ignore his distaste for school. I felt like a great parent for seeing the benefits of dual language learning. Then summer hit. Everyday he begged never to go back to school he said “you can tell the school we are moving and then we don’t really have to move and I can just stay home.” His begging never quit. The. I thought he’s clearly stressed and thinking ahead about how boring and exhausting 1st grade will be. Am I doing more harm by keeping him in? Yes. 5 yr olds shouldn’t stress about anything much less the place I send him for most hours of his day. So we quit school! I never needed Spanish in my life and if he does he will figure it out. He’s a smart cookie. Now we are all happy! And little ones deserve happiness

    • Ariane
      Ariane says:

      Glad to read this. My 2 kids (age 8) have been in French immersion for 5 years and they hate it. One has asked repeatedly to homeschool but i’m so afraid he’ll play video games all day so I say no. I’m also worried they’ll “lose their French”. If i take them out of immersion they can’t go back unless they can test in at their grade level. Since I don’t speak french (nor does anyone in my family) they’d fall behind, so taking them out = giving up French fluency. But now i’m not only questioning immersion but traditional school in general. I’m noticing self esteem and attitude issues that weren’t a problem before and they’re falling behind in math and english. I still don’t know if i can take the leap into homeschooling but i’m glad to hear it worked out for you.

  4. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I agree that you don’t need to teach your kids a second language, and disagree that the benefits of a second language are mostly in the brain.

    Most kids don’t need to learn a second language, because most Americans never leave this country and never have a reason to speak with someone who doesn’t speak English. But I don’t raise my kids to be most kids.

    I speak multiple languages fluently, and that was essential to my career. Besides having worked as a translator and an interpreter when I was younger, I have worked full-time in other countries where I spoke another language all day long. My wife also speaks multiple languages, and that has been very helpful to her career as well. She is able to have meetings in other countries that are not in English. This is not a benefit in the brain, but in the world.

    I expect it is likely that my children will also grow up to speak multiple languages fluently. This is mostly because I believe that some people have a far easier time learning languages, and this linguistic ability is likely heritable. I also believe kids tend to want to learn those things they see were important to their parents. I believe that their language skills may help with their careers as they have with their parents’, and they are intelligent enough to perceive this. I’ve spent some time in teaching, but I am not convinced that explicit teaching is the most important part. The most important part is wanting to learn.

    Schools can teach language very effectively, and it doesn’t only happen before a child is eight. However, most language classes in school are nigh-useless, and will only result in a smattering of telegraphic speech and set phrases. no matter the age of the students.

    There is another model, which is the most effective way schools can teach language: immersion. In my city we have five public schools that teach through two-way immersion in English and Spanish. They are highly sought after, and the number is slated to double next year. In addition, several private and charter schools here offer instruction mainly in Mandarin, German, and French. I believe that immersion programs will become one of the strongest arguments for school attendance.

  5. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I learned German in high school. Everybody told me I’d need to take a language to be well-rounded for my college applications. And then it turned out I really liked the language, and I was a natural. (I read somewhere that INFPs like me tend to be savants at learning languages.)

    Then I spent a summer in Krefeld, Germany, as an exchange student. That was back in 1984, while the Wall was still up. I got to see it. Anyway, oh my gosh, did I really learn German that summer. So much so that by the time I came home I was dreaming in German. My host family told me that I spoke with no accent. The only limitations I had was that my vocabulary, which was very wide, was just general; I didn’t have any words in specific domains. But even there I could usually make myself understood.

    In college I minored in German. Actually, I tested out of all the German they offered, but I wanted to be in their certified translator program so I got a professor to agree to do two years of independent study German with me, an then I took the two years of translation classes. The independent study was awesome! The professor had me read a play or novel every week and then we discussed it in German in her office. I read all sorts of literature I would never have been exposed to otherwise — stuff never translated into English. Even the stuff that had been translated into English, like Hermann Hesse’s “Demian,” was more nuanced and meaningful in German.

    For many years, there were concepts and philosophies that made sense to me because of my experience with German, and which I could explain easily only in German.

    Fast forward to recent days. My two youngest sons took German in high school, for much the same reason I did. Meeting the German teacher, I was surprised and pleased by how much I was still able to converse in German after having barely used the language since I graduated college in 1989. It’s like riding a bicycle for me.

    Point is: I would never have learned German had people not told me I needed it to appear well-rounded for college applications. If I hadn’t, I would really have missed out on something wonderful in my life.

  6. Mali
    Mali says:

    I’m giddy to start reading Thing Explainer. I find myself always explaining than conversing with my Lao mother who learned French and German before English. So when I try to tell a joke that will only work with the word ambulance instead of emergency vehicle – The joke doesn’t work. And I will always remember when asked, “What’s the name of fruit with carpet on the outside?”


  7. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Thanks for this post. My brothers and I are bilingual, but my parents are trilingual. We understand our parents’ third language but are not fluent in it because we never lived in their home towns. Maybe it’s not important to us so we didn’t make an effort to master the language.

  8. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    As an alternative to spoken language, my twin brother and sister took two years of sign language while in high school, to meet CA Universities A-G requirements. I took French and Spanish, and had a very different learning method than my classmates who used index cards for everything. I went straight into mimicking sounds to forming sentences.

    It’s pretty simple. The traditional college track is laid out in a standard format. If one has a child who wants to go to college it is good to become familiar with the requirements for entry. They don’t seem to care about whether or not learning a language is good for the brain, nor do I think they care about future business prospects. What has become painfully apparent to me this year is that there is an expectation for the standard college applicant to be both a specialist AND be well-rounded to be considered at a top school.

    For those of us with kids who want to go the academic route and have viable prospects, is the undergrad as important as grad school? Or can one go to a mid-tier undergrad school, do extremely well, and then get into a top grad school? My husband has overcome a lot to get to where he is. He went to a state school for his degree in mechanical engineering. Because it was a second career for him, he got to jump into management really quickly. But once he came to his current employer, there really is a mindset that exists. Where one went to school gets you into the best working groups, it is considered more prestigious. Of course, the most gifted individuals will be able to overcome that hurdle, but not without a lot of work and building a reputation on merit.

    All that being said, lol, my kids are not interested in learning a different language yet. I am a lot like your ex. My father came here from a different country and never spoke the language around us, and therefore I only spoke English growing up. I seemed to do really well with learning new languages as a teenager. If math and music contributed to that, since I was doing math and music as a young kiddo, how can I measure whether that is what made the difference in making learning languages easy for me.

    • Mariana
      Mariana says:

      Well, this post applies only to native English speakers. Everyone else needs to speak English. Period.

      • Anna
        Anna says:


        The world does not revolve around the US and teaching children a new language opens their mind and world.

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      There’s getting into the top tier school of your choice and then there’s getting into the top tier school of your choice on THE FIRST TRY. I don’t know why people expect high school juniors to get into these great universities on their first attempt. Is anything in life like that?

      I wanted to go to the best university that I could afford. It took me four tries to be accepted. Totally worth it.

  9. Vance
    Vance says:

    Optimizing brain function and your health, in general, needs to be more specific (which health insurance does not cover), like getting your blood tested for predispositions and deficiencies in elements and nutrients. It clues you into where the cognitive decline is emanating from. This enables you to further narrow your approach with preventive measures, exercise requirements, diet restrictions and supplementation specific to your biological needs.

    In most cases, it’s not Alz, but an underlying illness where the only symptom you’re showing is cognitive decline.

  10. Erin Wetzel
    Erin Wetzel says:

    What is the difference between the way “exposure to media/videogames at a young age rewires a child’s brain” and the way “exposure to second languages (or music or something considered socially acceptable) expands and improves a child’s brain”?

    Legit question. Is there research showing one has beneficial side effects, and the other is detrimental?

    Is this even measurable, without bias?

  11. Sydney
    Sydney says:

    I do not buy into the language window theory. Well, I buy into it a little meaning that the window closes on ADULTS. But I know teenagers who came here with nothing and learned PERFECT english easily, but they did keep an accent. There’s NO WAY the window closes when kids are 8. Think of people you know who came here as teens. Still, I think its a bit of a waste to learn if you have no one to converse with. And of all the people I know who learned a second language they really upped their knowledge by living in a foreign country. There seems to be no substitute for becoming truly fluent assuming you don’t have a foreign tongue speaking parent. But its stupid to argue its not beneficial. I cant stand this “research” on how being a musician or second language speaker makes you better at everything when people can’t do it all. I don’t see any point in music lessons for kids who aren’t into music. The kids who are pushed eventually fade away with it. The kids who love it love it. I do think musical training is useful but not at the level penelope pushes. Her son seems to love it, I dont know about the second one. Want to add I think its sad to use a spanish last name for affirmative action benefits. That seems out of sync with your other philosophies of life, diy and such. Your kids havent had a difficult life, frankly nor have many hispanics, why do that?

  12. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I kinda sort of gave up on the idea of making lots of money as a way to have stability and a joyful life full of great moments.

    Partly because I discovered that being on the verge of poor doesn’t really keep me out of the gates for traveling and enjoying art and such. Maybe out of the gate for status and bragging but since that boat has gone home a long time ago, like I care.

    So learning new languages. Being sensitive takes up so much space in my life and it’s so debilitating if I don’t honor that aspect of me that I noticed that my decisions are made based on the joy the choices will yield. Or trying to minimize the suckiness of it.

    I have a job that doesn’t pay a lot but it brings a lot of joy. And I don’t have to be at work super duper early. And I get to use walk through different cultures all the time. And I lead a very pared down life that I can save money for travelling. And still eat good food. And fancy coffee. And reeeeally fancy beer. And I can learn new languages and fill my house with art. Possibly plant flowers.

    I’ve given up being in like super good shape. I like what I’ve got going on. I am almost thirty and life is really good. There’s not much other than teaching grit that my parents could’ve done to afford me this opportunity.

    And by teaching grit I mean just dropping me in the water and make sure to cheer me own because sink or swim it was.

  13. Myrtle
    Myrtle says:

    Mixing in multiple languages like that won’t hurt them at all, the belief that it would is just some old-school nonsense, you’re doing your kids a HUGE favor by teaching them multiple languages, keep it up!

  14. Yeshayahu
    Yeshayahu says:

    How American of you to say “Kids don’t need to learn a second language.” I suppose everyone must speak American oh uh English. Its arrogant. Most of the world is multilingual. In America, Spanish is becoming a second language by default.

    Get with the program. Start using the metric system and learn to speak someone else’s language. The world does not revolve around the old British Empire and the good old U.S. of A.

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