For our family vacation last summer, we drove from Baltimore to Quebec City. At first, there were shouts of joy from our three children— the hotel in Quebec had free cable television! Then there were wails of sorrow— the TV shows were all in French. But my children were determined to watch, so they stared at episodes of “Shaun le Mouton” (“Shaun the Sheep”) and “Bob l’eponge” (“SpongeBob”) in a language they didn’t understand.
The most difficult part of the trip for them, though, was that they couldn’t make friends. Everywhere we went— the pool, the funicular, the pizzeria— they encountered French and Quebecois kids who didn’t seem that interested in speaking English. As we drove home, crossing the border into New York, my eldest cried out, “Yay, we’re leaving Frenchland!” My two other children cheered.
I never intended to raise a brood of stubborn monolinguals. I’d wanted to raise citizens of the world with broad lingual horizons— I just never got around to actually making it happen. But these days, I notice my more motivated parenting peers are making good on that pledge, enrolling their children in bilingual elementary schools, schlepping them to after-school language classes and plying them with “International Baby” DVDs.
“Parents get it, that the world is becoming smaller,” says Yani Peyton, owner of Fun with Foreign Language, a program with locations in Bel Air and Towson that offers Saturday morning classes. Peyton started the program in 2007, and since then it has grown to include more than 40 students enrolled in 10-week sessions that cost roughly $200 each. She offers Spanish and Mandarin for children as young as 18 months, teaching concepts through songs, hand activities and object play.
Sure, Peyton believes children who can speak second and third languages may have more career opportunities when they’re adults. But more important to her are the cognitive benefits of early multiple language acquisition. “There are studies that show that children who learn multiple languages are more creative and better equipped to solve problems than kids who speak only one language,” she says.
Other studies have shown that bilingual people are better multitaskers, retain better brain function as they age and experience delayed onset of Alzheimer’s disease. As cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok stated in a recent New York Times article, “Bilingualism is good for you. It makes brains stronger. It is brain exercise.”
And, the studies say, the earlier kids become bilingual, the better.
Deirdre Russo, who has two children under 3, was initially dubious about the rush to teach preschoolers a second language, calling it a “boutique-y trend.” “Right now there seems to be so much middle-class parental anxiety about teaching our kids languages,” she says. “I thought, why this pressure?”
Russo’s daughter Oona attends New Century School, a school in Fells Point where every toddler is enrolled in either a Spanish or Chinese track. Three-year-old Oona spends every day immersed in Mandarin. She and her fellow classmates may speak to each other in English, but the teachers and aides speak only Mandarin to them. (Complete language immersion is for the toddler classes only; the curriculum transitions to partial language immersion and daily language classes for preschool and elementary classes.) Russo picked the school primarily because of its location; the bilingual curriculum was not the main draw.
New Century’s head of school, Franklin H. Alden Jr., says the school offers language immersion for both scientific and practical reasons. “It’s been shown in study after study that the human brain early in childhood is hard-wired for language acquisition,” he says. The practical aspect, he says, is that in the next 50 years Chinese and Spanish will be the most influential languages alongside English. And then there’s the small-world theory: “The more we can understand each other, the better it is for everybody.”
Over time, Russo has noticed Oona singing songs, talking to herself and even playing with other kids in Mandarin. “I’m having my comeuppance,” she says. “This is a real gift.” She doesn’t know or care whether her daughter will continue to speak Mandarin, but she feels that somehow this experience will make language acquisition easier for Oona when she’s older.
Peyton agrees. Her two 7-year-old children are already fluent in Spanish and English, and they’re also studying Mandarin. “When you’re younger, your brain is not hard-wired, and you have a lot more capacity for absorbing information,” she says. “The sounds that they can make— I could never learn to make those sounds, even if I moved to China.”
All babies are born being able to distinguish all sounds from all languages, says Julia Yarmolinskaya, an adjunct faculty member at the Department of Cognitive Science at Johns Hopkins and a post-
doctoral fellow at the School of Education’s Neuro-Education Initiative. But soon after birth, she says, “The baby systems tune into the maternal language. By the time they’re 1 year old, they lose the ability to differentiate sounds that are not in their own language.” Of course, she notes, people can regain some of the lost ability to differentiate sounds through training in a particular language. But it’s better to not lose that ability in the first place. “It’s so much more difficult to learn a second language later in life,” she says. “Parents do kids a favor by exposing children to more than one language, because at a young age, it’s effortless for them.”
All this talk about helping your children become bilingual doesn’t mean you should make a beeline for “Bilingual Bee” DVDs, however. Yarmolinskaya is adamant that personal interaction is essential for language acquisition. “Videotapes and audiotapes do not make any difference,” she says. “There has to be a child-directed speech interaction.”
The good news is that you don’t have to speak a language fluently, or even well, to help your children learn it. “Imperfect personal interaction is more helpful than putting them in front of a Spanish television show,” Yarmolinskaya says. “Babies are really good at taking imperfect input and extracting the underlying perfect structure.”
Meanwhile, my children are starting to think about a return trip to “Frenchland.” When we were in Quebec last year, they refused to sit anywhere near me and my husband if we were eating poutine, a Quebecois french-fry-and-cheese-curd specialty. The other night, when I mentioned this delight, my eldest called out, as if from an alternate universe, “Oh, I love poutine.” And the other children cheered.
I couldn’t believe they remembered the word poutine. When I asked Yarmolinskaya about the cognitive abilities of monolinguals versus bilinguals, she said, “Obviously, there are plenty of intelligent monolingual people.” I’ve got my fingers crossed.