Fluency Not Required: Foreign Language Exposure is Great for Kids!

Kids blocks with Arabic letters.
The benefits of being bilingual at an early age has been well studied. But what about more limited exposure?

We have all heard the advantages of being bilingual, especially at a young age.  A number of studies have shown that children who learn two languages from early childhood have an easier time learning other languages later, and are able to speak multiple languages without an accent.  Some studies even suggest knowing more than one language can help offset dementia.  That said, usually bilingual children either have at least one parent who is fluent in second language, or they speak a language at home that is different from the one used outside the home.  For most of us, that’s not in the cards.  But what about limited foreign language exposure?  Does that do anything?  In this post I’ll review the studies relating to this topic and provide a few suggestions for how to easily integrate a second language into your kids’ lives (and your own!).


In short, the answer is yes.  The best place to start is the The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).  While most of their studies, and most studies on the topic generally, look at bilingualism, a smaller number of studies have looked at foreign language exposure and compared that group of children to monolingual and bilingual children.   There are several key findings worth noting:

~ Even limited Foreign language exposure improves perspective taking.

Simply put, exposure to a foreign language, even if limited, allows children to understand that not everyone has the same experience.  Different languages exist and different people use different words to say the same thing.

According to this University of Chicago article, a study published in the journal Psychological Science found that children (ages 4-6) who were exposed to more than one language, but were not bilingual, were able to take the perspective of the adult in the study more than those who were monolingual.  The “exposure” group did approximately as well (76%) as the bilingual group (77%) at understanding that the adult in the situation could not see one of the cars in the scenario.  Both were noticeably better than the monolingual group (50%).  Perspective taking is crucial for social understanding and empathy, provoking The Atlantic to declare that foreign language exposure fosters empathy in children.

“The most novel finding is that the children do not even have to be bilingual themselves; it is the exposure to more than one language that is the key for building effective social communication skills.” — UChicago News


While this study doesn’t have a separate “exposure” (as opposed to bilingual) group, it found that the two-year-old children who were “learning” a second language were better able to understand that a Mandarin speaker did not know English words.  The monolingual children expected that all the speakers had knowledge of the same words.  This again suggests that foreign language exposure increases a child’s awareness of different experiences.

The ACTFL also lists three studies that show the positive impact of language learning on children’s attitudes towards the target language and its people and culture.

~ It improves word learning, both in the foreign language “studied” and other foreign languages.

According to this study discussed in the PLOS (Public Library of Science) One Journal,  “informal exposure to multi-modal foreign language leads to foreign language vocabulary acquisition.”  In other words, informal learning of words in a foreign language, such as through pictures, does lead to word retention.  This study looked at written word-meaning retention, so it is less applicable to early childhood, but does show that informal exposure is beneficial.  This follow-up study showed that extensive exposure to the same word is not required, as participants learned words with as few as two exposures.

Perhaps more tellingly, this study in the Journal of Child Language found that “exposure to, but not necessarily immersion in, more than one language may promote the ability to learn foreign words from a foreign speaker.”  While all the children (ages 3-4) preferred the English speaker’s words for an unknown object, those who had exposure to a second language were better able to recall the words used by the Nordish (made-up language) speaker when asked what something was called in Nordish.  The exposure group actually did better than both the monolingual and the bilingual groups.

 ~ A multitude of additional benefits correlate with language “learning” but do not require fluency.
Foreign language text
Can foreign language exposure improve problem solving skills?

I should also point out that some of the studies that look at students “learning” a foreign language are not necessarily aimed at creating bilingual speakers.  For example, in many of these studies citing improved academic achievement, students had only 15-30 minutes of daily or three-times-weekly language instruction.  While the exposure was formal — occurring in a classroom setting — it was quite limited in time and scope.  Despite this, several of the studies showed that the benefits of a language component include improved standardized test scores, especially in math.  As described here, this suggests that the foreign language component could improve flexibility and problem solving skills.  In other words, being able to think “outside the box” and going beyond traditional approaches to a problem.

On a personal note, I believe this is absolutely true.  Trying to speak a foreign language when you’re not great at it forces you to think of multiple ways to say things.  Don’t know the word for puppy? Describe it as a small dog.  And so on.  It’s nothing cosmic but it does force you to be creative, and flexible, in how you communicate.

For vocabulary and reading skills, the results were more mixed.  One study, for example, showed the control group with slightly higher results in English punctuation, comprehension, and vocabulary.  However, the vast majority showed no detrimental impact.  And one study looking at just 15 minutes of daily Latin instruction found significant improvement of English vocabulary.


All of that is fine and good, but if you’re not proficient in a foreign language, exposing your kids might seem unrealistic or even silly.  Below are a few simple ways to introduce the concept.

1) Find simple but catchy YouTube songs.

These are great to learn and sing with your kids.  I love this one.  It’s basic and fun.  This one‘s a bit more complex, but also fun.  We also have a bilingual (English and Spanish) airport toy that a grandparent gifted my son that he loves.

2) Use bilingual children’s books such as this or this.

Three bilingual kids books.
Bilingual books such as these are a great introduction to another language.

My Spanish is decent, but reading the entire story in passable Spanish was a bit above my head.  Big Munchkin also got bored when we went all Spanish.  But what works great is when I interchange some of the words.  You could even do this with any English book if you know a few words.  Think along the lines of “five little monitos said buenas noches to their mama.  Then five little monitos jumped on the bed.”  Then gradually add more foreign words to the story over time.

3) Encourage interaction in the foreign language.

For example, I know my son’s future preschool teacher is from Mexico, so when we met her, I tell my son to say “gracias” or “adios” instead of “thank you” or “bye bye.”  If you travel to a foreign country, even if you’re staying at a resort and everyone speaks perfect English, encourage your kids to try out a few common phrases (and do so yourself!).  My son got such a great reaction when he said “hola” that he LOVED it, and would do so unprompted.

4) Dora.

I hate to even go here, because I am fairly fascist about screen time.  But we don’t completely forbid it, and when my son asks for a show, I usually offer up Dora because of the Spanish element.  In fact at one point he was running around the house shouting “grande or pequeno!!!!”  Dora alone probably won’t do much, but hey, it’s exposure!


That said, there is no need to go overboard.  This New York Times article discusses the lengths to which parents have gone to teach their children a second language.  Pushing too hard can easily turn kids off.  As the communications specialist at the end says, “if you introduce a language in the spirit of play and being embedded in their daily lives, you’re going to be much more successful than if you say, ‘O.K., you’re going to class now.'”

Have you introduced the concept of other languages? What worked best for you? Post in the comments!


“If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Spanish,” New York Times — http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/02/business/yourmoney/02money.html

“How Foreign Languages Foster Greater Empathy in Children,” The Atlantic —  https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/08/how-foreign-languages-foster-greater-empathy-in-children/432462/

“Learning Foreign Labels From A Foreign Speaker: The Role Of (Limited) Exposure To A Second Language,” Journal of Child Language — http://www.queensu.ca/psychology/sites/webpublish.queensu.ca.psycwww/files/files/Faculty/Mark%20Sabbagh/Learningforeignlabelsfromaforeignspeaker.pdf

“Children Exposed To Multiple Languages May Be Better Natural Communicators,” UChicago News –https://news.uchicago.edu/article/2015/05/11/children-exposed-multiple-languages-may-be-better-natural-communicators

“Incidental Acquisition of Foreign Language Vocabulary through Brief Multi-Modal Exposure,” Public Library of Science (PLOS) One Journal — http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0060912

“The Role of Repeated Exposure to Multimodal Input in Incidental Acquisition of Foreign LanguageVocabulary,” Language Learning –https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25558094

“Surmounting the Tower of Babel: Monolingual And Bilingual 2-Year-Olds’ Understanding Of The Nature Of Foreign Language Words,” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology — https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24268905

“What the Research Shows,” American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages — https://www.actfl.org/advocacy/what-the-research-shows#cognitive

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