I was watching Disney’s Tarzan with my baby girl one day and it reminded me of this case study that I had read in one of my psychology textbooks when I was studying as an undergraduate.

The town folks at Aveyron discovered a young boy about the age of 12 years old wandering around naked. Covered with scars all over his body, his behaviour was like that of an animal and he was not able to speak. It is estimated that he might have lived in the wild since 4 years old after his parents abandoned him. His sudden appearance then gave researchers at that time a golden chance to study him and find out once and for all whether we are products of nature or nurture.

One of those who studied him was Dr. Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, who was determined to teach the Wild Boy of Aveyron (as he was called) how to speak and communicate socially with others.

Despite his best efforts, the boy never managed to communicate or speak except for a handful of words even after 5 years of training. It was believed that either he was autistic or that he simply missed the window of opportunity for language acquisition, which had been determined by researchers as between 2-7 years of age. Personally, I’m more inclined to the latter.

Which brings me back to Tarzan. I thought it was incredulous that Tarzan was able to learn English in such a short period of time and speak it so well. He had almost no human contact so how was that even possible? It’s generally much harder (although not impossible) for children/adults to pick up a new language if they’ve never been exposed to it during the window of language acquisition.

That is why, when asked by people (after they found out I was majoring in child psychology) what is the most important thing to teach an infant, I always reply “Language. Expose them to as many languages as possible.”

Studies have shown that if you expose a child to native speakers of more than 1 language at a young age, instead of being confused like most people think, they are actually able to understand all of them. My father is an example of someone who’s able to speak 3 languages (English, Chinese & Malay) and 3 dialects (Cantonese, Teochew & Hokkien).

Having been a private tuition teacher to primary and secondary school students for almost a decade (9 years!), I discovered that I could easily get my student’s Maths or Science grades from a F to an A (if they worked really hard at it) but I could not improve their language abilities further than a B no matter how hard I try.

So thankfully in the multicultural society of Singapore, my little girl is exposed to many different languages, two of which she is now mastering quite well: English and Chinese. Three, if you count Singlish =)

But above all, it’s the language of love that you communicate across to your child that is the most important to him or her, in whatever that language may be.

Have a great week of ahead!

What do you think?  Are you bilingual? Are your children learning a 2nd language? 

This is an original post to World Moms Blog from our writer, research psychologist and mother of one in Singapore, Madeline Heng. You can find Madeline at her personal blog, MadPsychMum @ University of Motherhood.

The photograph used in this post is credited to Surlygirl. It has a Flickr Creative Commons attribution license.

Madpsychmum (Singapore)

Madeline lives in Singapore, a tiny cosmopolitan island in Southeast Asia. She is a mother to a beautiful and intelligent little girl born in July 2010. Madeline used to be a stay-at-home mother while she was completing her graduate studies in psychology at a local university. On completion of her studies, she has now joined the workforce and is working in the Ministry of Education (Singapore). Madeline is passionate about children and education and hopes to make a difference in the lives of children living in Singapore. Also an avid traveller and hardcore advocate of breastfeeding, she regularly documents her overseas trips and nursing room reviews with incredible detail on her blog, MadPsychMum @ University of Motherhood.

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