Polyglot and Proud: Teaching Kids Foreign Languages

Your tongue might be firmly anchored to Spanish or English, but childhood is a prime time to expose your kids to another language. The secret to teaching a new language to young children is to make it a playful, natural experience and to offer consistent exposure. Once your child masters a second language, she'll learn other languages more quickly, says Caryn Antonini, founder of the Early Lingo Series, a foreign language program for young children.

Young children store a second language in the same area of the brain as their native tongue, which allows for an instant recall, whereas older children and adults have a more difficult time learning.

Caryn Antonini, linguistic expert and founder of Early Lingo

The Benefits

In European countries, most people speak at least two languages -- and it's not uncommon for people to know four or five languages. The diverse cultures and communities of Europe make being bilingual a necessity.

The United States is becoming more linguistically diverse as well. According to a 2007 U.S. Census report, 20 percent of the American population speak another language. Learning a second language is a smart choice that can open economic and social doors. However, there are other advantages to knowing more than one language as well.

"We know that learning other languages helps with creativity, or divergent thinking," says Holly Hansen-Thomas, a professor of bilingual education at Texas Woman's University in Denton, Texas. "Those who know other languages may have more flexible and elastic thinking."

When to Start

When it comes to learning a language, earlier is better, notes linguistics expert Caryn Antonini. Up until 6 months of age, babies babble using 70 different sounds, which make up all the languages of the world. Their brains retain sounds and words they hear in the everyday environment and begin to discard those that they don't.

"Young children store a second language in the same area of the brain as their native tongue, which allows for an instant recall, whereas older children and adults have a more difficult time learning," said Antonini.

However, don't be discouraged if your children are older. People of any age can learn a second language, but the process doesn't come quite as naturally. So expect the need for more repetition and practice.

Finding a Program

Once you and your child choose a language to learn, it's time to choose a program. Many schools offer language classes, but you can augment that learning with some extracurricular activities. Online programs and DVDs offer a fast, simple way to gain exposure to language. Recreation centers or even local cultural groups often offer classes. Hans Fenstermarcher, CEO of Globalization and Localization Association in Washington D.C., suggests contacting the Alliance Francaise or the Goethe Institute to find language classes in your area.

Another option is to hire a tutor. When looking for a tutor, though, choose one that is not only a native speaker, but also has experience as a language teacher, advises Fenstermarcher.

When it comes to teaching a second language to young children, you want to keep it fun, reminds Antonini. Attend parent-child classes offered at preschools, recreation centers and even libraries. Watch DVDs that introduce language in engaging ways and read familiar children's books written in another language. Pop a CD featuring international music in the CD player when you're in the car and sing along together.

Bringing it Home

The concept of learning a language isn't complete unless you learn about the culture as well. Bring your child's language experiences to life by visiting areas where you can actively hear the language and become immersed in the culture, advises Hansen-Thomas. Attend cultural events and surround yourself with those who incorporate the culture into their daily lives.

Make speaking a second language a normal part of your everyday routine. Speak the language yourself, if possible, and find friends for your child who speak it as well.

"No child wants to be different, so even children who come from families that speak another language at home will be reluctant to learn the language if it makes them look different from their friends," said Fernstermacher, who adds that peer approval, combined with formal classroom instruction over a long period is the best formula for language success.

Choosing a Language

There isn't a right or wrong way to pick a language because there's no way you can predict where your child will land, explains Hans Fernstermacher, who has worked in the language industry for more than 20 years. However, he does offer some guidelines:

Choose a language that is most prevalent in your region. If you live in the Southwest, southern Florida or an area with an emphasis on seasonal agriculture, for example, Spanish is likely a good choice. Families living near the border with Quebec in Canada might choose French.

Teach your child the language of his ancestors, especially if your extended family still speaks it.

Although it's difficult to predict exactly what profession your child will choose, you should opt for a language that offers potential economic or academic benefits. For example, Italian is said to be the closet language to Latin. As more than 60 percent of the words in the English language have a Latin base, knowing Italian can improve your child's grasp of English, potentially increasing his SAT scores and improving his writing ability. Germany is a strong world economy -- and many U.S. companies have their roots in Germany. However, with China's fast-growing economy, knowing Mandarin will also likely prove useful in the future.

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