Let’s say a world-renowned soccer expert happens to observe your preschooler, and then approaches you saying, “Excuse me, but I just have to tell you that your child has ridiculous potential to become a soccer star.” Odds are you will enroll your future standout in a soccer program before the end of the week. What if I told you that every child in your school is a true genius—when it comes to learning languages?
All Children Are Language Geniuses
Without even observing your child, I can tell you that your preschooler is not simply good at learning languages, but that your child is an Einstein at learning languages. The physiology of language learning demonstrates that all children are language geniuses, regardless of socioeconomic status, parent level of education, neighborhood, home language, race, and so forth. We see it happen child after child, when they go from gibberish to language, never once translating gibberish into English. And this fact has massive implications as Christian educators consider the character of God, the power of developmentally-appropriate education, and intentional curriculum that truly equips children to become world changers.
Language and Cognitive Development
To use another image, imagine constructing a four-story house. Obviously, you must start with the foundation and first floor. Similarly, as your life is built, your brain in the first seven years of life insatiably digests language(s), enabling you to communicate. Language is the first floor to your home. As children acquire language, they quickly amass a large bank of knowledge through their amazingly powerful memories (which is why you shouldn’t expect to beat your first grader in the game “Memory”!) As the brain continues to change through puberty, adolescents increasingly gain the capacity to think critically. The longer people live, the more they apply critical thinking, and the more life experiences they gather, the greater their development of what we know as wisdom. Hence, the Book of Proverbs’ clarion command to revere the wisdom gained by gray hairs. The progressive floors of the house fluidly move from language, to knowledge, to thinking, and, finally, to wisdom.
If critical thinking is an overarching goal of education, why didn’t God give preschoolers the ability to read and do math? For sure, many advanced preschools try to expedite development and boast that children are reading by the end of pre-kindergarten. However, the answer to this question has to do with the brain the Triune God created. We are born with two hemispheres made up of four lobes on each side, consisting of over one billion neurons. These neurons have made relatively few connections by the time we are born, but they have an insatiable appetite to form “synapses” with other neurons. The lack of connections combined with the propensity to connect creates “high plasticity,” which is a fancy way of saying the brain is really malleable. You could almost say the four lobes are more like one mega lobe—and this simple fact has everything to do with learning language.
Communication is a full-brain activity for children from birth to seven years old. For the first seven years of life, their language center is being formed (Wernicke and Broca areas) which is basically found at the convergence of the four lobes (it’s interesting to note that older children, especially postpubescent children, do not learn language this way). Imagine a ten-month-old saying, “Da Da,” for the first time. Dad walks in the room. The occipital lobe identifies the man. The parietal lobe gets excited and focuses attention on this dude. The temporal lobe hears Dad saying, “Da Da, Da Da.” The frontal cortex runs statistics. This is not the first time baby has heard this sound. The baby has locked in the intonation, and the frontal cortex tells the facial muscles and vocal chords to move, and the baby begins to parrot, “Da Da.” Dad subsequently goes berserk, “Honey, get in here, Earnest just said ‘Da Da!’” To which baby’s parietal lobe and frontal cortex decide they like this positive reinforcement, and the baby goes on to repeat, “Da Da,” again. This is an example of full-brain language learning.
Patricia Kuhl’s research demonstrates that six-month-old children identify every sound in every language, whereas by their first birthday children only identify sounds in their contextual language (Kuhl 2004). However, you can train the brains of children up to seven years old to hear new sounds through repetition. This becomes much more difficult after seven years, and almost impossible after puberty. That’s my excuse for why I sound like a gringo speaking Spanish, even though I have been fluent for almost twenty years (I did not start learning the language until fourteen years of age). On the flip side, my three- and five-year-olds pronounce Spanish (home language), Mandarin (school language), and English (culture language) in native tones as though they were born in three different countries. I experienced this same phenomenon among my students when I served as headmaster of an ACSI school in Caracas, Venezuela, and I see it daily as the founding headmaster of Charleston Bilingual Academy.
In summary, I have just provided an oversimplified justification of why preschoolers are cognitive prodigies in language. While most American preschools try to distinguish themselves by curricular intensity, or endorsing a unique philosophy (e.g., Montessori, Reggio), we have found that we can just play—play in a language-immersion environment, where children have fun while becoming fluent in another language and learning new cultures.
Bilingual Education Centered on Inspiring Others
God could have created any developmental chronology that He wanted. Why did He choose language first? Perhaps because He liked the scaffold (language to knowledge to critical thinking to wisdom), or maybe at a much deeper level He is infusing part of the essence of the Trinity: community. Without communication, there is no community. Throughout Scripture, and most explicitly in John 14-17, we see the unity and diversity in the Trinity. Jesus teaches us both the oneness and uniqueness in the three persons of the Trinity, where three distinct persons are so unified, they are actually one. And Christ proclaims that the redemption He brings will create oneness both with other believers and ultimately with the Triune God.
Language is essential to this unity. The Trinity has always spoken to each other. God spoke creation into being. God gives humans the gift to communicate at an exponentially deeper level than any other created being. And then Jesus uses understandable language to explain to us why we need community both with Him and with each other. I believe the physiological development of the newborn to seven-year-old brain proclaims the relational glory of God, equipping us even as we begin distinguishing sounds in the womb to be able to promptly develop relationships.
The beauty of bilingual education and bicultural education is playing off of these geniuses to open up a world to our children where we can break down future walls of language and cultural barriers. It is very possible your child was not born with the capacity to become a world-class athlete, but it is extremely possible that your child was born with the capacity to reach people of other languages and cultures. Based on this premise, I believe immersive, bilingual education that is centered on the glory of the Triune God has great potential to inspire world changers, in keeping with Matthew 28:18-20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, even to the very end of the age.”
Related Resources for Further Exploration:
- Patricia Kuhl’s TED Talk
- Potential Brain Benefits for Bilingual Education (NPR; short read)
- Does Being Bilingual Make You Smarter? (British Council; medium read)
- Bilingualism Life Experience (Harvard; medium read)
- The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual (U.S. National Library of Medicine; scholarly read)
Kuhl, P.K. 2004. Early Language Acquisition: Cracking the Speech Code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5 (11): 831-843.
Nathan has studied education throughout his academic career (at Furman, CIU, and Vanderbilt Universities). Based off of his studies, international living, and passion for bridging cultures and sharing the love of God, he founded the Charleston Bilingual Academy as a pilot school for Christian, intercultural, language immersion education. He is currently developing a network of dual immersion, Christian schools internationally. Nathan is also the co-founder of the Clapham Circle, an educational think tank and consulting firm. Along with his wife and three children, he lives in Charleston, SC. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.