It’s estimated that two-thirds of children worldwide are brought up bilingual or multilingual, and that in the U.S., approximately 21% of school-age Americans speak a non-English language at home, according to www.earlychildhoodeducationzone.com. Studies show that there are numerous benefits to teaching children a second language, with evidence indicating that learning a second language helps improve thinking abilities, multi-tasking capabilities, and even test scores for students.
The ability to speak a second language decreases with advanced age, with younger Americans, aged 18-29, far more likely than other age groups to be bilingual; the younger a child learns a second language, the better they will retain it, and David Trigaux, the Headmaster Emeritus for the Pear Tree Point School, a private co-ed elementary school from Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 6 in Darien, concurs: “Research shows that the optimal time to begin learning a second language is at birth. A child’s brain is open to developing a language fairly easily…as we get older, the harder it becomes.”
At the school, students can take either Spanish or Mandarin, or both, and native speakers in each language teach the 30-minute classes twice weekly.
The Mandarin program is interactive with songs, games, movement and conversation; writing and character recognition are introduced and strengthened with each advancing year, while China’s culture and history are learned through holiday celebrations, videos and short films. In Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten, Spanish is taught through classic stories, games, songs, puppets, and cultural celebrations and activities, while in grades 1-6 conversational skills are developed, vocabulary is increased, pronunciation is refined and cultural history, geography and customs are taught based on the Core Knowledge curriculum.
“Children become more globally aware when learning other languages, and we often find the parents wanting to learn these languages so they can converse with their children,” David says.
The working class
Learning multiple languages can also teach children how to study, problem-solve, and become more resilient, according to a parent who has had three children matriculate through Pear Tree Point School, with one daughter having spent three weeks in China as part of an exchange program when she was 13. “Mandarin is a very precise, demanding language, with characters that are like little pieces of art,” explains the parent, who is multilingual. “My children are all very different types of students, who learn in different ways, and daily practice with writing and flash cards has helped them not only learn new languages but develop a good work ethic.”
At Landmark Preschool in Redding, students begin learning Spanish in either the threes or fours preschool classes, says Ann Hirsch, director: “At this age the children are acquiring all kinds of language quite rapidly and they are not self conscious about saying things that might be wrong or sound silly. Our teachers play games, sing songs and use manipulatives that reinforce some of the themes the students are studying in the classroom so that they can attach to the vocabulary.” The school also sends parents a newsletter explaining what the students are working on and the vocabulary they can reinforce at home, and the school’s other teachers use the vocabulary in gym or music class.
Valérie Touma, a French teacher at Ridgefield Academy in Ridgefield, believes that foreign language should begin when children are in preschool: “Not because they are better learners than adolescents and adults, but because they learn naturally,” she says. “In the right environment, the one that provides plenty of sensory stimulation through games, movements, music, and language, young children have the willingness and the ability to learn more easily.”
The school’s Ridgefield campus offers French as early as preschool, and French is taught twice a week through the second grade. In third grade, Spanish is introduced. Once the students have picked their language of choice, the number of foreign language lessons taught per week increases gradually each year. By the time the students reach 6th grade, foreign languages are taught four times a week, and then each day by the 7th and 8th grades. Additionally, students in the 5th grade learn some Latin in the context of their English classes.
Beth Simon, a Ridgefield resident and parent of Luisa, a 6th grader at the school, feels that learning a second and even third language has benefitted all three of her children. “We lived in Paris until three years ago,” she recounts, “and our two older girls attended upper level French schools there, while our youngest, Luisa, went to a French pre-school. Consequently, all three have learned French, and after we returned to the U.S. three years, we enrolled Luisa in Ridgefield Academy, where she has continued with her French and has also begun taking Spanish.”
The family speaks French at home as much as possible, and further immerses themselves in the language by watching French movies and reading French books. “We’ve found that the earlier the kids start learning a language, the easier it is for them to pick it up and maintain it,” Beth observes. “It’s important for them to think globally, and expanding their minds at a young age and knowing more than one language will help them succeed in life, we believe.”
Learning a foreign language also boosts brain power, and helps further mathematical and reasoning skills, as well as building communication skills, studies show. “Children have to learn a whole new system of rules, meaning, and new language structure; therefore, their performance in other academic areas is enhanced,” Valérie notes. “Studies have shown that learning a foreign language develops the part of the brain that aids in learning music, problem solving, and mathematics, and they score higher in standardized exams in math, reading comprehension, and vocabulary. Children develop a better memory through the new skills acquired, and this positively influences academic progress in other subjects. It also builds their self-confidence, gives them a sense of pride.”
Being bilingual also enables children to have a better understanding and appreciation of people from other countries, and the more that children are exposed to cultures different from their own, the more empathetic adults they will become, Valérie says: “In our globally oriented society, having the ability to communicate with various types of people gives you a significant advantage for finding an interesting job…It shows your intelligence, your openness to diversity, and your flexibility. It definitely makes your resume much stronger, and gives you a competitive edge over the others.”
Even her youngest students are exposed to French culture. “We learn the traditions and celebrations of France and other Francophone countries,” she states. “In my own classroom, students celebrate new traditions each year. Events such as the Three Kings Day, Mardi Gras, and typical French breakfasts are experienced by young children to expand their understandings of French culture. Each December, the third and fourth graders enjoy tasting the traditional holiday cake called Bûche de Noël, and of course, we flip crêpes any time of the year. Cultural education is further encouraged in the Middle and Upper school when sixth graders are taken out to a French or Spanish restaurant downtown, where conversations and food orders are done strictly in the targeted language.”
Juliet B., a freshman doubling in international business and French at Fairfield University, began taking private French lessons the summer before entering fifth grade. “I found it easy to learn the language and have loved being able to converse in French,” she recalls. “Having taken French classes all these years, I’m interested in and learning about what is happening in France on every level, and learning the language has helped me to have better comprehension and listening skills … it’s not just a matter of knowing another language, it’s how having to learn it makes you smarter in other ways.” The 18-year-old student plans to pursue a career in which she can utilize French on a daily basis.
Ann concludes, “Parents should be realistic that their pre-school or kindergarten aged child is not going to be a fluent speaker, unless he or she is enrolled in an immersion program. However, the overall goal is to build confidence by assimilating and using other languages, to attach vocabulary to items, and to build future synapses which will help further learning in all areas. I think it broadly prepares students to be part of a larger group of people and it also helps their brains to grow and develop to expand their learning capacities.”