Give the Gift of Early Bilingualism

Why Introducing a Second Language by Preschool is Ideal

What if your child could grow up speaking a second language? Not just learn a foreign language haltingly in middle or high school, but speak fluently from her toddler or preschool years?

For some families, bilingualism happens naturally as a parent or grandparent speaks another language. Yet even these families often find that English starts to dominate once a child enters formal schooling—whether in preschool or elementary. Without additional support, the native language doesn’t develop further and sometimes fades into the background.

Other families who might in theory feel drawn to bilingualism can’t quite figure out how to make it possible for their child to learn another language—at least not until the upper grades, when foreign language classes become available in school.

Luckily, more schools in the Northern Virginia, Maryland and D.C. area are now offering stronger language programs starting as early as the toddler years. Here’s why you may want to explore such a program.

By starting by preschool, your child can achieve bilingualism effortlessly. Young children—before the age of six or so—are wired to acquire language naturally. It’s just part of what they do, instinctively, without any visible effort or strain. Just by being surrounded by adults and peers who speak the new language, a toddler or young preschooler can pick it up as easily as he learned English at home. By starting young, he has the best chance of acquiring a native accent along with the intricacies of that language—whether it’s the tones of Mandarin Chinese, or the inflected grammar of Spanish or French.

Children in early immersion programs learn to fully communicate, not just understand. Language programs can mean different things at different schools. In some schools, language is an enrichment activity, offered for 30 minutes a few times a week. Children learn some songs and phrases, and get introduced to a new culture. In bilingual programs, one teacher speaks English and another one speaks another language.

Children learn to understand the second language, and pick up phrases, but tend to default to speaking only in English. In a full immersion environment, however, all teachers speak only the target language, both with each other and with the children. Over time, young children who are fully surrounded by another language—whether Chinese or Russian or Arabic—will begin to speak that language with the adults and with each other while in class as it will feel natural to do so.

Look for individualized programs with rich language environments. Children
 learn language at different rates. Effective language instruction should differentiate in speed, method and emphasis for each child. Young children learn language best when it is woven into their daily experiences—when an adult provides the right words and phrases in the moment of that activity, rather than the adult-lead didactic way. Montessori classrooms and other individualized approaches that incorporate a wide range of real-life activities (from cooking to flower arranging), integrate cultural activities (from geography to art), and introduce literacy in a conversational way, are best suited for an effective immersive experience.

Being bilingual has many benefits—practical, cognitive and social. For some families, the choice of language is obvious: if you speak French or Japanese or Korean, it makes sense to continue that tradition, especially if you have a school nearby that offers a program in your native language.

For parents who aren’t multi-linguals themselves and who have no connections to a second language, Spanish or Mandarin Chinese can be good choices. Beyond English, Spanish and Mandarin are the most spoken languages in the world, and offer many future opportunities for work or travel. Spanish is a relatively easy language to learn with many resources available in the U.S., including second language programs in elementary schools. It’s also a language you can reasonably learn alongside your child. Mandarin, in contrast, is harder to master as an adult—but for young children, it’s just as easy to speak and understand as English, if they are surrounded by it all day.

LePort Schools are expert content developers and implementors of Spanish and Mandarin immersion programs at their schools in California, New York and now Northern Virginia. Starting with one language immersion classroom in 2012, we’ve grown to 25, with five more coming to Northern Virginia this fall (www.leportschools.com/nova).

About WF Staff

Washington FAMILY Staff

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