by Purna Virji
As a homeschool mom and blogger in the Chicagoland area, Janet Powers could not be more pleased that her two teenage sons are eager to learn a foreign language.
Her 13-year-old son recently started tackling Mandarin Chinese, which was prompted by his interest in a family friend living in Asia who speaks the language, and her almost 16-year-old son is learning Spanish.
“I’m excited about our boys learning a second language, because you just never know what they’re going to be involved in when they grow up,” Powers says. “What if one of them is an emergency responder, who knows Spanish and can help the person in need? What if one of them is a successful businessman, can speak Chinese, and ends up doing business in China? As a homeschool mom, I want to make sure I prepare my children for the future.”
Powers isn’t alone in her mission. Many parents today are recognizing that their children can benefit from learning more than one language, says Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign-language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics, in Washington, D.C. There’s a big push by families wanting their kids to be bilingual and many are introducing a second language at a very early age – as young as two or three. They’re recognizing both the short-term and long-term benefits.
“Parents are seeing that we’re living in a global society and Americans cannot assume that we’re the center of the universe, and we have to look around us and say, ‘We need to be able to negotiate with the Chinese, sell to people in Africa, and communicate with people all over the world,’” Rhodes says.
Leads to creative thinking
Rhodes says research shows that kids who speak more than one language tend to be more creative thinkers than those speaking only one language, and several studies indicate that children’s brain functions improve.
“There’s more and more research now that’s showing the cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language early, and they include being better at problem-solving and scoring higher in creativity tests,” Rhodes says.
Barbara Lust agrees that being bilingual may give children a cognitive edge. She’s professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and director of the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab (CLAL) at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
“Work here at Cornell, as well as research at other institutions, suggests that there are definite cognitive advantages to being bilingual and that these advantages show as early as 4 years old, if not before,” Lust says.
One such cognitive advantage is an advance in what’s called “executive attention,” which helps orient individuals amidst the huge amount of information that comes in on a daily basis. Lust says it’s a general cognitive monitoring mechanism that’s essential to school learning. A Cornell study found that when young children learn a second language, they can contend with multiple stimuli better than children speaking only one language. In other words, it can help students key in on what to pay attention to, what to ignore and what type of action they should take.
“These cognitive advantages,” Lust says, “are over and above the obvious advantages given to a child who can come to know two cultures through two languages.”
Children absorb information ‘like little sponges’
Heidi Bernal, principal of Adams Spanish Immersion School in St. Paul, Minn., sees firsthand the benefits of students learning a second language.
“Children are like little sponges and they’re already in a learning mode,” she says. “Most are not afraid to jump in and take a risk (when learning a new language). We use dance, pantomime and pictures and they pick it up.”
Bernal points out that new research shows that learning a second language increases brain function. In addition, she says there are long-term advantages, and savvy parents, wanting the best for their kids, are looking ahead to their futures.
“There’s the piece about how they use (the second language) down the line,” she explains. “Spanish is the fastest-growing language group in the United States so there’s a practical use, but there are also kids learning Mandarin, and with the global economy, those children might work in international business some day.”
Also, bilingual people have greater earning potential. According to Salary.com, bilingual employees can earn 5 to 20 percent more than those who aren’t bilingual.
Tips for parents
Rhodes says learning a second language, particularly for younger children, doesn’t have to be taught in formal classrooms. She recommends that parents provide fun and interactive language-learning environments. For example, children can learn by watching TV shows like Sesame Street, which teaches basic Spanish words to preschoolers. Many parents also add bilingual books, CDs and toys.
“I would suggest to parents that there are all sorts of programs you can do at home,” Rhodes says. “The more you expose your child to language the better, even if it’s playing CDS and playing songs. You just want to expose the children to the different sounds…
Then it won’t seem so ‘foreign’ when the child starts to learn and really study a language.”
Rhodes also suggests that parents can hire a bilingual babysitter or caregiver and encourage her to speak to their child in her native language, or start up a play group with kids from other cultures who speak different languages.
“You want it to be in a very natural setting,” Rhodes says.
What’s working for Powers and her sons is an audio-based method of learning. Powers is a believer in the Pimsleur Approach, an audio-based language learning method. Pimsleur takes the words and phrases of a language and condenses them down into digital audio downloads, CDs and cassettes. Pimsleur currently offers more than 28 languages.
Both of Powers’ sons are using the Pimsleur Approach.
“Our 13 year old developed the desire to speak Chinese Mandarin last school year,” she says. “I told him that I would find a class for him so he could learn it. Thankfully, the Pimsleur method came along and I don’t have to ‘teach’ him anything. The CDs do all of the teaching. So he’s learning to speak Chinese all on his own. What a boost to a child's confidence. … He’ll even listen to his lessons while cleaning his room or shooting hoops.”
Powers’ oldest son is learning Spanish using Pimsleur. In fact, she first used Pimsleur to introduce Spanish to her boys several years ago.
“We would sit around the table together and play the CDs,” she says. “We all learned small conversation, colors and counting in Spanish in a very short time period. It was fun. The Pimsleur Approach is different since there are no textbooks.”
Powers has tried other language-teaching techniques and was part of a homeschool co-op a few years ago where Spanish was taught in a class with a traditional teacher and a textbook.
“Neither of our boys took to that,” she says. “We try to avoid textbooks and learn in other creative ways. “
Author: Purna Virji
Purna Virji possesses a talent for learning new languages with six in her present language-speaking repertoire. She is a former producer for an Emmy-nominated television show with a master’s degree in international journalism. She currently works at Pimsleur Approach, the world leader in the audio-based, language-learning program developed by Dr. Paul Pimsleur.
by Purna Virji