Preschool | Kindergarten | Child Health + Development | New Baby | New Parents | Ages 0–2

Babies benefit from early foreign language lessons

Sometimes it seems that there's no end to hyper-parenting. Who hasn't had enough of the flash cards, the "Baby Genius" DVDs and the "Numbers are Your Friends" software? What's next, foreign language lessons for infants?

Well, yes. Spanish, French, Mandarin and Japanese -- you name it -- these languages and others are popping up more and more in schools, courses and enrichment activities targeting very young children.

Turns out there are genuine benefits to early (really early) foreign language exposure. According to the latest studies, babies and young children learn language differently -- and better -- than adults do.

That's something most of us suspected in 10th-grade French, when conjugating verbs in the pluperfect tense didn't make much sense and -- let's be honest -- still doesn't.

But now we have the science to back it all up and, along with that, intriguing new enterprises that hope to capitalize on the hottest findings in language acquisition.

Blame it all on Patricia Kuhl, Ph.D. Co-director of The Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, Kuhl is known worldwide for her research on language development and the way early experience alters the brain.

Kuhl discovered that infants are able to distinguish among sounds used in all languages. But early in their development -- around 6 months of age -- their abilities to discriminate foreign language sounds decline sharply. That's because they begin to concentrate on learning their native language sounds, she says.

"There's more sensitivity to language early on," explains Barbara T. Conboy, a postdoctoral research associate who works with Kuhl. "The gradual loss of that could be due to learning the first language; babies start to tune out things that are not relevant to that language."

UW researchers also found that infants learn foreign language best by social interaction. In other words, watching an educational DVD or listening to an audiotape in Spanish or Cantonese doesn't really work: human contact does.

Jackie Friedman Mighdoll took notice of those findings and launched her business, Sponge, based largely on Kuhl's studies. Sponge language center in Seattle (www.spongeschool.com) teaches Spanish, French, Mandarin or Japanese to kids ages birth to 5, incorporating games, songs, stories, music and movement in each 55-minute class. Teachers -- all native speakers of their language -- speak that language only during first 45 minutes of each session.

"Our focus is making sure children are exposed to both the language and culture," says Mighdoll, a Seattle resident. "It takes time to become a proficient bilingual speaker in any language. But this is a great way to start."

Does learning a second language confuse babies and toddlers who are in the midst honing their speech skills in their native tongue?

Not really, Mighdoll says. "Kids are smarter than we are in figuring out language," she explains. "Think about how many words your child learns for cat: kitty, meow, Sam across the street. They figure out how to use these words and in what context."

The Seattle School District launched its first language immersion program in 2000 at John Stanford International School, where kindergarten and first-grade children spend half of each school day learning math and science in Spanish or Japanese.

In the Bellevue School District, students can begin kindergarten or first grade at Puesta del Sol Elementary and be taught almost completely in Spanish. And the Northshore School District offers the "Dual Language Program" in Spanish and English.

Maybe you'd prefer your toddler learn German? Then the Seattle Area German American School (SAGA) is for you. SAGA began in Issaquah last fall for preschoolers, but will add grades as students move up. A second Seattle location will be offered in August.

Francophiles might want to check out the French Immersion School of Washington in Bellevue or the French American School of Puget Sound on Mercer Island. Students at these schools study subjects such as math, science and social studies, all in Francaise. Both schools begin at the pre-kindergarten level; at the French Immersion School, the youngest students are 21/2.

Applications to the French Immersion School increase every year, says Veronique Dussud, head of the school. "Parents these days realize that a child will have to know two languages perfectly to be able to function in society," she notes. "We also find they pick up other languages much more easily later on."

Seattle parent Molly Hanlon wants her kids to learn another language and doesn't really care which one. Right now, Audra, age 2, and Teddy, 6 months, are learning Japanese at Sponge.

"I have no expectations they'll come out fluent -- but I hope they acquire an appreciation for other languages and cultures," Hanlon says.

Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.

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