The benefits of young children learning foreign languages have been studied, reported, and are numerous. Research has shown that children who are bilingual have better test scores in terms of analytical skills and cognitive processing, and even that their risks of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease later in life is decreased. There is debate, however, as to how young children can best learn to speak and understand multiple languages, and what negative consequences might even result.
If your home is like ours, English is the native language of both parents, and the limited language exposure we had during high school is hardly enough to qualify us to teach our children another language. It doesn’t help that my husband studied German, I chose French, but we wanted our children to learn Spanish. There are so many ways for children to learn languages that parents can be overwhelmed with which is most effective, and yet practical, for the family.
Immersion classes, even for preschoolers, are cropping up all over the country. These involve children attending classes where a foreign language is spoken by the teacher, immersing the children in the language as they learn their basic skills and receive childcare. Some schools are moving towards partial immersion, where a portion of the school day is spent doing certain subjects in English, then others in Spanish or another language. The goal of these programs is to reach fluency by the time many students reach middle or high school age.
Not all communities offer these immersion programs (such as mine), and obviously not every family can afford the private tuitions that are often applicable. Other options for some families include nannies and childcare providers who are bilingual and can provide their children with consistent foreign language opportunities.
Our family chose a different route in our quest to have our children learn foreign languages at early ages – we decided to try to do this in large part at home, together. It is most likely inherent to our home school philosophy in general that led us to this decision, but also because our options in our community were more limited at the time our children were toddlers. We have used several approaches, each with their own unique results.
General Exposure – We used lullabies sung in Spanish, tapes and books in Spanish, and played games that required minimal Spanish comprehension. Even before my youngest turned 2 he was counting in 2 languages as naturally as if his parents were as fluent as they dreamed of becoming. At these young ages children are able to discern and repeat sounds that adults have a more difficult time pronouncing.
The Learnables – A fellow home school parent who did mission work in South America recommended this program (she is bilingual). This program relies heavily on verbal repetition to build vocabulary. As you and your child listen to the word or phrase, you also look at a corresponding picture in a book. The style and design of the materials is not graphically advanced, is simple in format, and does introduce your kids to the new language gradually. The drawback is that there is no written word or explanations in the beginning levels.
Rosetta Stone – Currently all four of my children are using this program, each with varying levels of success. By using the home school version, I am able to track their scores and implement worksheets and quizzes to monitor progress. The benefit for us over The Learnables is that Rosetta Stone has a verbal recognition software component that helps us to make sure that we are repeating the sounds correctly.
College Courses – For the past several years our local university has offered language classes for people other than college students. These are taught by the international students, using their expertise with their native languages to teach practical, social language skills. My daughter has taken Spanish, German, and even Bengali through this program. If you live near a college, check to see if they offer a similar program or might be willing to start one.
Possible Drawbacks to Learning a Second Language
While almost all of the evidence points to the benefits of learning a foreign language, particularly for children, there are a few instances where this can actually be a hindrance. Some speech language pathologists have concerns that children with processing delays or issues such as Autism or Down Syndrome can actually become behind in language skills for their primary language when another is introduced. These speech and language pathologists feel that parents need to carefully assess whether or not their children are ready for an additional language, and monitor other non-verbal communication strategies that might be negatively influenced as well.