Richmond Parents Monthly (Sept 2005)
by gayla mills
Across the country, second language programs are on the rise for preschool and elementary age children. Teachers and parents are responding to research that shows the many benefits of learning languages early. Though these programs are still hard to find in the Richmond area, there are several steps that parents can take to help their children become bilingual.
Why worry about a second language now when your child will likely choose a language in middle and high school as you did? Because younger children appear able to benefit more from early language exposure. Studies show that the earlier children learn a second language, the better. There is a window of opportunity for optimum brain enhancement, and younger brains are wired for early language learning. A two-year old brain, for example, has twice as many synapses as an adult brain. Young children develop better pronunciation than those who are exposed to a language later on. They also tend to be less inhibited and less afraid to make mistakes, so they take the risks necessary in learning a new language.
There are several benefits of learning a second language. Research from the Center for Applied Linguistics, based in Washington, D.C., suggests that children who learn a second language are more creative and better at solving complex problems than those who do not. Bilinguals outperform monolinguals on both verbal and nonverbal tests of intelligence and tend to achieve higher scores on standardized tests. And as they get older, those who can speak another language can communicate with more people, travel abroad more easily, and have a competitive edge in the workplace.
How do you choose what language your child will study? For the 5 million preschoolers where a language other than English is already being spoken at home, the decision has already been made. All parents need do is continue speaking that language to their child at home. For those parents who are themselves monolingual, the choice of languages may come down to what's available.
In the Richmond area, Spanish is the most common foreign language spoken and the most commonly taught in the earlier grades. Programs at the high school level are also available in French, German, Japanese, and Russian, though they still don't recognize two languages that are growing in importance to Americans: Mandarin and Arabic. Given the current push in the schools to intensify and diversify foreign language instruction, parents will likely have more options in the future for choosing from a diversity of languages.
At the preschool level, there are at least two programs in the Richmond area that offer Spanish instruction: Precious Times day care center, where native Venezuelan Lucy Gregory teaches kids in the 3 year old classroom, and Richmond Montessori School, which offers Spanish at both the early childhood and elementary education levels.
According to teacher Lucy Gregory, repetition is the key to helping children learn a language. She speaks Spanish to her 3 year olds daily, often repeating the same words or phrases in both English and Spanish. In addition to hearing counting and instructions, the kids also sing familiar songs in Spanish, such as the ABC or the Itsy Bitsy Spider songs. Jayla Townes, a precocious 2 year old, surprised mom Stephanie Starling when she came home from Precious Times one day counting in Spanish. Now Stephanie wants to do whatever she can to encourage her daughter to learn Spanish. "What I'm looking for is a program on the weekend where someone can do the one-on-one. Because this is the time that she's going to learn."
There are 14 public elementary schools in Richmond that offer Spanish immersion classes for K-1, and the city is looking to expand. (To find out if your zone school offers Spanish, simply call the school and ask.) The county school language programs are more limited: in Chesterfield, Robious Elementary offers French to all grade levels. And in Henrico, Springfield Park Elementary offers German.
There is also an enrichment program after school that is offered through the city and county schools, through private classes in the area, and with on-line products. "Awaken the Spanish Within" was created by Lisa Zajur of the Spanish Academy and Cultural Institute. Lisa has raised three bilingual children and was owner of a preschool bilingual program in Richmond for several years. "I've experienced first hand how easily kids can pick up a second language during preschool," she said. During the two-hour weekly sessions, the program teaches songs, common phrases, basics of the language, the alphabet, colors, and more. For many kids it is their first exposure to Spanish. For native speakers of Spanish, the program offers the kids a chance to be proud of their heritage among their peers. "It gives them a really nice cultural bridge," Lisa said.
If you can't easily get your child into a language program, there are many other steps you can take to expose your child to a second language. Listed below are some ideas:
- As early as infancy, play music CDs or videos in the new language
- You can buy bilingual language programs or products. Be sure that the program incorporates visual, musical, verbal, and beginning reading.
- Repetition is important. Be sure your child is exposed to the new language daily. Here are suggested guidelines for exposure:
- infant = 10 minutes
- toddler = 20 minutes
- preschooler = 30 minutes
- elementary school child = 45+ minutes
- Up until age 12, you can teach your child both languages at the same time, interspersing sentences or having one parent speak the new language while the other parent speaks the native language. After age 12, it is better for a child to be immersed in one language.
- Make sure that learning is fun. Most children love learning a new language. The important thing is for the parent to stop for the day if it seems like work and the child is picking up on that feeling.
- If your native language isn't English, don't listen to teachers who suggest you stop speaking your native language at home. Children have no trouble learning more than one language at a time and will do better if they are exposed to both languages-and they will do fine with three as well!
- If you have the opportunity to expose your child to a speaker of another language on a regular basis, take advantage of it. Think about what language resources you have nearby: grandparents, relatives, non-relatives who work or live in your home, neighbors, and so on. Encourage them to help by speaking their native language to your child. You may want to formalize the arrangement and offer compensation in return for regularity. Most adults welcome the chance to help a child by simply talking with them.