NYC parents are enrolling their youngsters in foreign language classes — for the earliest possible exposure.
    Cynthia Tavlin
    May 2005

    Bonjour, ca va? Curious toddlers who step into West ParkPresbyterian Church on Wednesday mornings are greeted with a singsongvoice and smile from Michelle Bertrand, founder of Music & Play EnFrançais. The foreign language playgroup — one of dozens heldthroughout the city — is part of a growing trend of parents opting toraise a bilingual child or give their babies a leg up by exposing themto a second language early on. Most are still in diapers, but folded intheir moms’ laps for the next 45 minutes they’ll sing “If You’re Happyand You Know It” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”, listen to stories andplay circle games — all in French. Some sit absolutely transfixed,others concentrate for a moment and wander off the way toddlersfrequently do. Either way, parents bring their kids to the class in thehopes that their babies will gain some proficiency in French.

    “This is one of her first playgroups,” says one of the moms, Reginawho asked to be identified by her first name, in attendance with her15-month-old daughter. “I’d like to have a little more exposure toanother language and start her early. Hopefully, some of it will ruboff.”

    Alissa Owens and her husband, Mark, who live in Park Slope, havetwo children, Zoe, 9,and Jordan, 7. They hired Spanish babysitters whospoke to the children, from birth, only in Spanish “It was a majoreffort on our part,” Alissa says; the Owenses insisted the childrenspeak Spanish to the babysitters and they created a library of Spanishbooks. Even more unusual, neither parent speaks Spanish. Both childrenattend Hannah Senesh, a Jewish day school in Cobble Hill where half theinstruction is in Hebrew; both children are now tri-lingual.

    The earlier the better

    When it comes to learning a second language, the younger the betteris what many linguists say. Research indicates there is a criticalperiod for acquiring language that can begin as early as 7 months old.As children approach puberty, they lose this natural ability as thebrain becomes less adept at creating the neural connections necessaryfor processing a new language. “There is a growing acceptance of theidea there is a window of opportunity or ‘critical period’ during whicha person’s brain is unusually receptive to language learning,” writesCarey Miles in Raising Bilingual Children.

    “The formative years are the first five years,” explains Bertrand,who was raised in a French-speaking household in New York, and didn’tspeak English until she attended nursery school. “No one takes theclass expecting to walk out and speak French fluently, but the more youexpose children to different languages, the more you expose them todifferent sounds which opens up synapses in the brain.” This, accordingto Bertrand, creates a drawer for the language file in the brain, sowhen the child is older and exposed to language in a more formalsetting, she’s not hearing a foreign language but another languagethat’s familiar.

    Though many parents raise bilingual children for cultural reasons,studies available through the Center for Applied Linguistics suggestthat there are other benefits children derive from being fluent in morethan one language. On average, bilingual children read earlier thantheir monolingual peers, take a more creative approach to problemsolving, and tend to score higher on standardized tests, even in areasnon-related to language, such as math.

    Another reason to expose children to a second language early on isthe emotional advantages they enjoy. Francois Thibaut, founder of TheLanguage Workshop for Children in Manhattan, notes that young childrenare rarely as self-conscious as adults and are not afraid of sayingsomething wrong in another language. “Youngsters are willing to callout their new foreign words and their spontaneity pays off with afaster fluency adoption,” he says.

    Though children raised in bilingual homes tend to speak later thanmonolingual children, it’s because the process of learning two nativelanguages takes more time. Bertrand is doing what her parents did:speaking only French to her 4-year-old daughter at home and waitinguntil nursery school for her to learn English. “It’s amazing how fastshe’s picking it up,” she says.

    Consistency and commitment

    Whether a parent is fluent in a second language, raising abilingual child requires consistency and commitment. “It’s important toseparate the languages that children are learning,” maintains LuisaCosta-Garro, a linguist and professor of education at Bank StreetCollege. In families where the dad speaks English and the mom speaksanother language, Costa-Garro says the optimum way to learn multiplelanguages is for the mother to consistently address the child in hernative language and the father in his. Alejandra Novillo, who israising her 6-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter bilingually,agrees. Married to a non-speaker of Spanish, Novillo only spoke Spanishat home with her son, Henry, who is now fluent in English and Spanish.Persistence is key, she says, noting that if Henry asked her a questionin English, she wouldn’t answer until he repeated it in Spanish.

    “The important thing is for children to be exposed to lots oflanguage practice in the language of the home,” says Costa-Garro, whoalso advises families to find ways to incorporate the language theywant their children to learn into fun and meaningful activities such ascooking, storytime and sing-alongs. Foreign language playgroups,videos, DVDs, music CDs and audiotapes available in the language ofchoice can also help. Costa-Garro, whose 19-year-old daughter istrilingual, says her family frequently had Spanish-speaking guests intheir home and took numerous trips to Argentina, which increased herchild’s exposure to the language, and also helped her acquire it in anauthentic manner.

    Though it certainly helps to have one fluent speaker in thehousehold, babies are adept at learning languages, and fluency can beachieved by finding a babysitter who speaks a foreign language. “Youhave to be with friends who speak the language,” notes Novillo whobegan Juguemos A Cantar, a Spanish music and playgroup as a way ofimmersing her son in a Spanish-speaking environment. Now that Henryattends the local public school, Novillo reinforces the language of thehome with Spanish magazines and videos, and has even found Yu-Gi-Oh,the popular trading card game, in Spanish.

    Another option is a dual language school. Unlike bilingualprograms, which are designed to teach English to non-English speakers,children enrolled in dual language immersion programs are expected tobecome fluent in two languages. Typically, half the students are nativeEnglish speakers and half speak the designated language withinstructional time divided, usually 50-50, between the two languages.New York City has several dual language schools, including P.S. 184,the Shuang Wen School in Chinatown, a PreK-6 school where studentssplit their day between English and Mandarin Chinese, and the AmistadDual Language School in Inwood, a K-8 school with a progressivephilosophy where children graduate bilingual in English and Spanish.

    Costa-Garro points out that as bilingual children grow older,they’re likely to stop speaking their home language. “Many may comeback to it,” she says. “The language of the home is the language ofroots, and many realize the importance of reconnecting with culture.”

    Do You Speak ‘Parentese’?

    Sure it feels silly, even condescending at times, but thoseexaggerated tones we use to talk to babies — “whoose a bee-yoo-tee-fullbaybee?” — are actually good for them. A study by Carnegie Mellonresearchers published in Infancy found that babies learn to talk soonerwhen adults speak to them in “parentese”—the singsong, expressive useof language that seems to come naturally to so many adults when theyencounter a baby.

    In a series of experiments led by Dr. Erik Thiessen, director ofCarnegie Mellon’s Infant Language and Learning Lab, 8-month-old infantswere divided into two groups and exposed to fluent speech made up ofnonsense words. One group heard the speech in parentese, or baby talk,and the other was exposed to the same speech in monotone. Researchersdetermined that the infants exposed to parentese learned to identifywords more quickly than infants who heard the same communication inmonotone. “Learning a language is one of the most critical things thatan infant has to do, because communication with other people is sotremendously important,” says Dr. Thiessen. “It makes a great deal ofsense that the special way we have of talking to babies would help themlearn.”

    The study also suggests that the simple sentences and slow worddelivery people use with infants may be a factor in adopting a newlanguage, a scenario not likely to happen with adults, which may alsoexplain why grown-ups have a hard time learning a second language.

    Oh Baby!

    Product won’t do it alone, but exposing children to music, booksand other resources is one way to stimulate and reinforce languagelearning. Here are some suggestions:

    • Professor Toto’s Sing and Learn Start Kit is part of a series ofmulti-media language kits developed by New York’s Language Workshop forChildren. Geared for ages 2 and up, the French starter kit brings theforeign language playgroup home, with music CDs, scripts, illustratedstorybook of the songs, a fun activity book that helps buildvocabulary, and other items. The kit can be purchased as a whole or ala carte. For further information, visit www.professortoto.com.

    • Berlitz Publishing recently launched Baby Berlitz, a series oftalking board books with titles such as Peek-A-Boo Family for ages 3and under. The series is available in English and a bilingualEnglish/Spanish and retails for $8.95. For older kids, Berlitz Kids1000 Words is a useful reference published in Spanish and French.Detailed illustrations reminiscent of Richard Scarry’s Busy Busy Townare absorbing to look at but also contain everyday items labeled inEnglish and French or Spanish. Geared to ages 8-11, the books retailfor $9.95. For further information, visit www.berlitzbooks.com.

    • How do you say wedgie power in Spanish? Captain Underpants, orLas adventuras del Capitán Calzoncillos (Scholastic, $4.99), thechapter book series by Dav Pilkey about a caped crusader who fights fortruth, justice and all that is pre-shrunk and cottony, is alsoavailable in Spanish. Geared to readers 6-9, the Spanish versionscontain the same illustrations, which make it fairly easy fornon-speakers familiar with the series to follow along. There’s also thedo-it-yourself Flip-O-Rama, which is still Flip-O-Rama in any language.Scholastic also publishes many of its other popular books series, suchas Clifford the Big Red Dog, in Spanish. For further information, call1-800-SCHOLASTIC or visit www.scholastic.com.