Bilingual Education Benefits and How to Find a Program

July 7, 2009

“Come si dice?” “Comment le dit-on?” “How do you say it?”

Take a look at any local parenting website, newsletter, or newspaper and you’ll see plenty of ads for language enrichment programs for kids. What is this increasingly popular phenomenon and why should you take advantage of it?

According to neurobiologists, the human brain is “hardwired” to learn languages as an infant and toddler. Any language learned during this period is stored, literally, in a different part of the brain than language acquired later in life, and in the right environment young children can learn up to four languages without significant slowdown. No kidding. At this age the brain has a limited-time-only specialized plasticity to form the neural pathways necessary for easily and naturally absorbing multiple languages. This ability starts to taper by age three or four and is diminished by puberty. Ironically, high school is the age at which American children have historically been first formally exposed to a second language. Ask anyone who’s ever taken 9th grade Spanish how naturally and easily it came to them.

"¡Hay Caramba!”

The benefits of multilingualism are staggering. According to Therese Sullivan Caccavale, President of the National Network for Early Language Learning ”Studies have shown repeatedly that foreign language learning increases critical thinking skills, creativity, and flexibility of the mind in young children”. She continues “Students who are learning a foreign language out-score their non-foreign language learning peers in the verbal and, surprisingly to some, the math sections of standardized tests.”

Additionally, learning subsequent languages comes much more easily. Think of it as bundled software. With any second language comes the ability to learn multiple languages with relative ease. This is very significant since, according to Martha G. Abbott, Director of Education, American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, “Students can always switch languages at a later date if it appears that another might be more useful for a specific career path.”

Finally, there are the obvious cultural and professional advantages of speaking at least two languages in this multilingual world where Americans so typically lag. By the time the new generation reaches adulthood, multilingualism will be considered a necessity, not a luxury.

How can you capture this seemingly superhuman and fleeting ability in your own child? Very simply—expose them to a second language as much, and as soon as possible.

Enter the newly popular, full immersion preschools and beyond. Immersion is without doubt, the best way to maximize your child’s multi-lingual potential without living full-time in the language, especially if the parents are mono-lingual. “Immersion programs are effective because they use the second language acquisition as the vehicle for learning the general education curriculum.” says Martha G. Abbott. In other words the second language is not treated as a separate subject. Children in these programs just go about their day using it, absorbing it, and learning other topics through it… the same way they learn their first language.

Once you’ve decided to seriously pursue a bilingual education for your child, the next step is to find the appropriate school. “When looking for a bilingual school, you’ll want the same quality and standards that you would expect from a monolingual program, plus a second language. This includes proper licensing, a clean and safe facility, qualified and enthusiastic staff members, and a personal match with the schools philosophy” says Rosella Pusateri, Founder and Director of Girotondo Italian Preschool and Kindergarten here in Marin County. Girotondo Italian Preschool and Kindergarten is California’s only licensed immersion Italian school and has campuses in San Rafael and Berkeley. The school is Reggio Emilia inspired and slated to open a first grade class at the Marin campus in 2010, continuing each year through the 8th grade. Another great local choice is the French language Lycee Francaise. The schools Corte Madera campus offers preschool through 5th grade in with the option to continue through 12th grade at the San Francisco location. Flowery Elementary School in Sonoma is a Spanish/English dual immersion school operating grades K–5.

If your child is not ready for preschool or you’re not ready for full immersion, there are options. “Mommy and Me” and other language enrichment classes focusing on art, music, dance and culture are available for children through local Community Programs. There is plenty to be gained from these classes as well. Experts say just hearing the language on a regular basis will improve the accent in the target language as well as lay the groundwork for grammar cognition, the two biggest barriers for adult students of foreign languages.

Bonus Tip: One obscenely easy way to inject some foreign language into your child’s daily life is by selecting the Spanish or French language option on whatever DVDs they’re already watching. Chose one language and stick to it. Don’t waste time with English. They’ll understand it even if you don’t. Plus, if you start early on, they will never know the difference… and it’s free.

"Allons-y!"

Contact Information:

Jessica Hall is a Board Member of the Girotondo Italian Preschool and Kindergarten. Her daughter has attended the school for two years and is fluent in Italian and English. Jessica will attend “Mommy and Me” classes with her newborn son this fall. Jessica grew up in Italy, Greece, and the US as a military dependent and passionately pursues a multi-lingual experience for her children in Northern California.