On a recent Wednesday evening a couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of participating in a very interesting panel discussion focused on early bilingual education in Manhattan hosted by New York Family magazine. The audience was a mix of bilingual and monolingual parents exploring the best ways to introduce their kids to a second language.
Affluent, highly educated and highly motivated, these parents certainly understand that by selecting bilingual schools or programs they are making one of the best investments in their children’s future. A few of the parents had lived in different countries and spoke several languages themselves.
There were three main points that I covered in my presentation:
- Early childhood is the best time to introduce languages
- Parents are the catalysts in their children’s language education
- Parents can be excellent language teachers, even if they are monolingual
Early childhood is the best time to introduce languages
If you follow my blog, you are already aware that early childhood is the best time to introduce languages. New studies focused on the preschool years are coming out all the time, and in the panel discussion I made reference to the video by Dr. Patricia Kuhl focused on her research on babies’ amazing sound discrimination prowess that I highly recommend to you as well.
Parents are the catalysts in their children’s language education
This second point is a bit more subtle. Let me explain.
In many parts of the world (e.g. Europe) it is taken for granted that children will study a second language, and world languages are part of the core curriculum from the first years of school.
This is not the case here in the States, which means that it is up to the parents to take the initiative if their children are going to get off to a great start in a second language. This is true pretty much anywhere in the US, even in the largest cities such as NYC.
A survey conducted in 2008 by the Center for Applied Linguistics showed that about 25% of US elementary public schools offered world languages, a decrease from 31% a decade earlier. The data shows that, even today, the large majority of schools in the US only offer programs in high school, way too late to generate a pool of graduates at the advanced level (most kids who start taking languages in high school only achieve a Novice-High or Intermediate-Low level, so pretty much they just know how to perform very basic functions such as finding out where the bathroom is). [Click here to learn more about the ACTFL speaking proficiency levels]
For this reason, it’s up to US parents to research what if anything is available in their local schools, locate high quality enrichment or afterschool classes, private tutoring, and other options.
Parents can be excellent language teachers, even if they are monolingual
The reality is that even if you are lucky enough to find a fantastic program with a highly motivated teacher and your young child loves the class, he or she will only learn so much in a 45-minute session once or twice a week. The good news is that parents are ideally situated to reinforce the language learning at home through playful everyday activities if they are shown how to do so.
Once parents understand that they are in the perfect position to teach their kids, they will need to find the right resources to guide them through this process. This is true whether the parents are bilingual or monolingual. It just requires a bit more effort on the part of monolingual parents, as they will really be learning along with their kids.
Of course bilingual parents have the advantage that they can provide an immersive environment for their children, but even short amounts of time on a frequent basis go a long way in language learning.
The tipping point in early language education is possible
I have been working on enabling parents to teach their children (fluent) languages for several years. My goal during the next few months is to take the project a few steps farther and provide stay-at-home moms and other parents interested in teaching languages to their young children the bilingual resources and planning information they’ll need as they move along.
My co-presenters for the Manhattan panel were:
- Patricia Lo, Director of the Asian Languages Bilingual/ESL Technical Assistance Center for the NYC Department of Education.
- Sharon Huang, of Bilingual Buds, a Chinese immersion program for toddlers and preschoolers in Manhattan and NJ.
- Lora Heller, Founder of Baby Fingers, a sign-language program for young children in Manhattan.
How Preschool Children Learn Languages and How Administrators Can Help Webinar
On March 9th, I also presented a free webinar sponsored by Early Childhood Investigations. To listen to the webinar recording click here “How Preschool Children Learn Languages”
To read the responses to the participants’ questions, click here: “Q&A for Ana Lomba’s Session on How Preschool Children Learn Languages.”
Ana Lomba is changing the way people think about and interact with young children learning languages. Her Parents’ Choice award-winning books, lively songs, games, stories, and mobile applications are quickly becoming favorites with teachers and parents who want to nurture young children’ inborn language abilities. Key to the success of Ana’s break-through method is a focus on the family as the ideal environment for early language learning – even her signature curriculum for language programs is built with parents in mind. Ana has taught toddler, preschool, elementary school, and college-level Spanish courses, and held leadership positions with some of the most influential language organizations in the US, including ACTFL, NNELL and FLENJ. After graduating with a law degree from Spain, her native country, Ana pursued graduate studies at Binghamton University, Princeton University, and NYU.