It's no secret that the world is a smaller place
than it was even 10 years ago, and with this change comes new
expectations in language skills. Those fluent in multiple languages
have access to better jobs and opportunities, and research shows
they have increased cognitive abilities, as well.
When it comes to kids and bilingualism, it's never too
early to begin learning a second language, even if your child is a
newborn, says Mary Lane, Kendall College School of Education
"We're naturally wired to learn multiple languages, and
across the world bilingualism is much more common than
monolingualism," Lane says.
The benefits of learning a second language at an early age
include developing better abstract thinking, which can help in
other areas of learning, and helping children become more sensitive
to cultural diversity, since it is nearly impossible to learn a
language without understanding the culture.
And getting started sooner has other advantages. Lane says
there is a critical period, around age 10-12, where the ability to
learn becomes significantly harder. This occurs because the brain's
cognitive flexibility decreases with age. Young children can hear
slight differences in sounds that adults cannot. Learning a
language after this critical period isn't impossible, but along
with increased difficulty, second language learners will not sound
like native speakers.
Language Stars, a foreign language learning program with
seven Chicago area centers, was created to give young children age
1-10 the opportunity to learn multiple languages.
"The younger they are, the easier it is to pick up the
language without an accent, use it spontaneously and use it
naturally," says Language Stars President and Founder Leslie
Age isn't the only important factor in learning a second
language. How you learn makes a big difference as well. According
to Lane, the best way to learn is through play and exploration,
which allows second language learning to be reminiscent of first
"When we were infants, our mothers and fathers didn't
conjugate verbs (with us)," Lane says.
Language Stars has built a curriculum based on this idea.
Teachers speak in Spanish, French, German, Italian or Mandarin, as
they lead students through songs, art and cooking projects, games,
magic shows and other activities to bring out a child's natural
ability to learn a foreign language.
Lancry says children learn better through play. "We can
use foreign language 100 percent during play, maximizing the
learning without our young students even realizing that they are
making leaps and bounds of progress," she says.
Human interaction plays a vital role in language
"One thing I would highly warn, in big bold letters, is
that it has been shown that you have to learn language from another
person or other people," Lane says. "It is impossible to learn
language, especially with children, from DVDs, videos or audio
tapes. There has been a lot of inaccurate claims, especially with
Baby Einstein, that, 'Oh, children will do great if you expose them
to this language early,' but it isn't attached to a
When looking for a language program or class for your
child, make sure the curriculum is play-based.
"The best thing would be to visit the language center or
program your child will participate in and observe," Lane says.
"Are they engaged in play and exploration? If they are, great. Are
they involved in singing and dancing? Great. If they are sitting
and conjugating verbs and it looks like your high school foreign
language class, that's not going to work."
Parents can also take advantage of Chicago's many ethnic
neighborhoods, including Pilsen, Little Italy and Chinatown, to
encourage their child's interest in a new culture or continue to
develop an interest in a culture they are studying. Lane warns
parents not to make their child practice their second language on
command, something she says many monolinguistic parents
"Like anything, if you force it on a child and you make it
something they have to do, they aren't going to learn to the best
of their ability," Lane says. "The ultimate best way (to learn) is
making it fun."
Anna Carlson is an intern at Chicago Parent.
Anna Carlson is a Chicago Parent intern.
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