As you’re planning back-to-school experiences for your child this year, take some time to think about what offers the most long-term benefit. Research from Cornell University suggests that learning a foreign language provides cognitive advantages to kids. When your child can move with ease between English to Spanish, this mental agility demonstrates intellectual strength and excellent communication skills — two highly sought-after life skills.
The ability to speak Spanish is within reach for your child, even if English is their only language. In fact, learning Spanish — a language spoken by 585 million people worldwide — is one of the best gifts you can give your child, says Sandra Pichardo, a Spanish language instructor at Chicago’s Instituto Cervantes, the largest international Spanish teaching organization in the world.
And, when your child learns from a native Spanish speaker, they get so much more than language. They learn about the world around them, too.
“Learning Spanish is not just about speaking the language, but becoming immersed in a completely different world and learning to view the world through a different lens,” Pichardo says. “The more you know about other cultures and other people, the better relationships you will have among all different types of people.”
Here, we share some key benefits for your child to learn Spanish this year.
Back to school, back to expanding horizons
Research documents the many brain-centered benefits of learning a foreign language, but being able to communicate with others in a variety of different ways is also a true commitment to diversity and equity. The more kids learn about other cultures, the less they fear the unknown.
“The fact that so many people are afraid of what they don’t know means that they don’t have an understanding of how other people live and think,” Pichardo says. “If we give our children this possibility, their world is so much wider. A whole new world opens up to them. It’s something you hear often, but it’s really true.”
Kids naturally seek to expand their world, she says, and learning to speak Spanish is a great way for them to connect with others and learn more about the wider world.
“The kids I’m teaching right now are 7 and 8 years old and the main reason they want to learn Spanish is to communicate with kids who have come to the U.S. and are not from here,” Pichardo says. “They are telling me they want to know what other kids do in their home countries. What video games do they play? They are thinking about right now, not the future. They want to communicate with other kids to find common ground.
Older kids are recognizing their increased marketability when they have a second language. “Some 14-year-old students are already thinking about going to Europe to spend a summer, and they know if they have another language, they will have better opportunities to find a job,” she says. “Sometimes, I’m really surprised to learn how mature these students are in their reasoning.”
Children learn easily with expert instructors
When kids learn Spanish from native speakers in a fluid and flexible environment, they experience the language in a different way from traditional classroom-style instruction.
Because Instituto Cervantes recognizes the individual nature of Spanish language learning, the school allows instructors the freedom to adjust the curriculum to the group, allowing for a fully differentiated experience for each student.
“There are many different approaches to learning Spanish and we have flexibility with this,” Pichardo explains. “A language is not like math. There is some grace in there and I’m very glad the Instituto Cervantes allows this attention to individual needs.”
More than learning a foreign language
When kids learn to speak Spanish, they naturally become better English speakers, too. The focus on clear communication gives students a chance to reintroduce themselves to important concepts of grammar — including comparisons to English grammar — that they wouldn’t have to think about if they weren’t learning Spanish.
“Some students have even told me that this is the first time they are really learning English grammar. With little ones, we don’t approach grammar as much, but with older kids and as they advance, we do need to do that at some point, or communication gets lost in translation,” Pichardo says.
One benefit of teaching younger children to speak Spanish is their ready adoption of the sounds of the language. They tend to be happy with understanding the gist of a conversation, without needing to grasp the translation of every single word, Pichardo says, making them more confident communicators.
“Adults tend to get frustrated because they want to know the meaning of each word, but children understand that if they get the sense of the language and can intuit from the sounds of the language, they can understand,” she says.
Because Instituto Cervantes is dedicated to supporting the cultures and language of Spanish speakers, in addition to language instruction, the organization offers rich resources for continuing education and connection with the language and those who speak it.
Kids can use the José Emilio Pacheco Library’s 30,000 books, videos, DVDs, audiobooks and more to supplement their professional instruction and advance their experiences of speaking Spanish. The publicly accessible library supports anyone interested in the language and culture of Spain and Latin America.
“Here you have an opportunity to practice, year after year,” says David Rodriguez, marketing coordinator with Instituto Cervantes of Chicago.
Options for online and in-person instruction
During the pandemic, Instituto Cervantes opened virtual instruction to kids and families across the country, and, in addition to offering in-person instruction, will continue providing virtual language learning. This gives kids in Chicago opportunities to connect with like-minded peers in Seattle, Michigan, California, New York and other locations.
In person, Instituto Cervantes offers instruction for kids from toddlers to age 15, with full COVID safety measures in place. There will be small cohorts of students who work together, and everyone will wear masks, wash their hands often and follow Chicago Public School precautionary guidelines. All staff and instructors are vaccinated, too.
“The pandemic has been bad in so many ways, but the positive is that people are now connecting all over the country virtually. When we can bring together kids of the same age groups from California, New York, Seattle and Chicago, they gain a lot more from the experience. They find others who share the same goals and common ground.
And, says Pichardo, they have fun, too.
“Kids need something to make them happy because it hasn’t been easy for them this year,” she says. “One of my students said to me ‘I need to have something to smile about and a way to share with my friends,’ and this is a nice way to do that.”
Learn more about Instituto Cervantes at chicago.cervantes.es.