Preschools becoming multilingual learning hub
Contra Costa (Calif.) Times
Jul. 12, 2005

Peggy Spear

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 table.

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 component.

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, the better.

"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 French.

"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," Casey says.

"I see it as a gift I can give my children."