Preschools becoming multilingual learning hub
Contra Costa (Calif.) Times
Jul. 12, 2005
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - Susan Winchester knew that the foreign-language classes
her toddler was taking were having an impact one day at the diaper-changing
The Orinda, Calif., woman, who is bilingual, asked Douglas in French, "What
color is the sun?"
"He looked up at me with a sparkle in his eye and said, 'amarillo.' And it
wasn't a mistake." "Amarillo" is the Spanish word for yellow, and Douglas
Zeller, at 2, was letting his mom know he is trilingual.
Winchester is one of many parents who are recognizing the value of offering
foreign-language classes to toddlers. It's a trend that is spawning more
preschool classes and elementary enrichment classes with a foreign-language
Certainly the value of learning a second - or third - language has not been lost
on most parents and educators. Studies show that people who are bilingual have
stronger brain development, and the earlier children learn a second language,
"Studies show that there is a 'window of opportunity' for optimal brain
enhancement," says Amy Casey, who runs Walnut Creek's Spanish for Kids program.
"And that is usually in the preschool ages." She adds that auditory development
in people usually peaks by age 12, right about the time many American kids are
just beginning to study a foreign language.
Research from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Linguistics suggests
that children who learn a second language are more creative and better at
solving complex problems than those who do not.
Other studies show that a 2-year-old brain has twice as many synapses as the
adult brain, and the young brain must use these connections or lose them.
Catherine Jolivet Johnson, who runs the French for Fun school in Lafayette,
Calif., starts her students off even earlier. Her "Mommy and Me" French class
includes infants as young as 3 months old. She teaches songs and beginning
sounds, and offers bilingual parents the opportunity to brush up on their
"It makes sense to introduce children to foreign languages as they are
developing their language skills," Johnson says. "They pick it up much easier."
As toddlers, Johnson's students move up to a 90-minute program, the one
Winchester's son attends three days a week.
Winchester did encounter one of the drawbacks to teaching young children a
foreign language, as Douglas was slow to develop his speech patterns.
"Children who learn several languages as babies and toddlers may not speak as
quickly as their peers who are only learning English," Winchester says.
"My husband and I were worried when younger kids were speaking better than
Douglas," she says. "We were second-guessing ourselves."
In the past couple of months, however, Douglas, now 3, "has bloomed," his mom
says. "He was slower to talk, but when he did, it came out in Technicolor."
Most experts agree that one of the most important things to do is converse with
your child in a foreign language. During the summer, Casey plans Spanish days on
Tuesdays and Thursdays for her four children.
"I try to speak only Spanish to them - some days they are more into it than
others," she says. She also says it would be easier if her husband, John, spoke
Spanish, so that the whole family could converse.
Casey's father's native language was Spanish; his mother was born in El
Salvador. But she says he didn't speak Spanish once he hit his teens, and he
didn't speak it to his children. Casey became fluent when she enrolled in a
year-abroad program in Spain while in college. Her father took Spanish lessons
later in his life, and she says that before he died he was fluent again.
"Because he had spoken it as a child, it was easy for him to pick it up again
when he was in his 50s."
There are so many benefits to learning a foreign language, and no drawbacks,"
"I see it as a gift I can give my children."