Raising Bilingual Children

    I recently spent an afternoon at a place called The Language Workshop for Children at the Kids’ Club in Overland Park. It looks like any other preschool, with colorful posters adorning walls of cheerful rooms, but there is one difference: You will not hear one word of English spoken there. I watched a group of 2- to 4-year-olds sing cheerful songs, learn about colors and shapes, and dismantle “Señor Papa”, a Spanish version of Mr. Potato Head. 
    “Children who learn multiple languages today have great opportunities in the future,” says Maria Salazar, director of The Language Workshop. Michelle Fox agrees. Future opportunities are what prompted her to enroll her son Cooper, age 2 ½, in one of Ms. Salazar’s classes a year ago, and she is very happy with his progress. “Had I heard about these classes earlier, I would have enrolled him when he was even younger,” she says. 
    The Language Workshop offers classes starting at 6 months of age, featuring a wide range of options like toddlers with parents, a family preschool, private lessons and camps. All classes are based on the Thibaut Technique originally founded in New York 36 years ago, which is renowned nationwide as a leading method of foreign language education.

Language Study Will Benefit Your Child 

    My interest in local language programs was triggered by my own background. My husband and I were born and raised in Germany and never once doubted that we would raise bilingual children. When friends overhear our children effortlessly alternating English and German, they always ask how we were able to teach them German so well. I usually reply that “teaching” is not the right word – we just speak the language. 
    We are not alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 6.8 percent of the Kansas City area population is foreign born, with 10.5 percent speaking a language other than English at home. KCMO school district records show 23 percent of students indicating a language other than English as primary language.
“But shouldn’t you focus on teaching your kids proper English?” you might ask. “Won’t they have disadvantages and cause problems for society if they don’t learn English from an early age?” This is an argument heard often, especially during times of economic downturn such as these, even prompting some states to consider “English only” legislation. 
    Amazingly, the opposite is true. While some bilingual children might lag in their acquisition of fluent English, this is more than made up by the advantages they gain from early exposure to a second language. Numerous studies have shown that learning a language aids brain development, leading to higher ACT and SAT scores, creative problem solving and better performance in math and logic. The link between bilingual education and high reading scores is especially intriguing. Somehow, learning a second language enables us to better understand the first one.

    And you don’t have to stop at two. Natasha Amirshahpari, who works as a preschool Spanish instructor, is trilingual. Born to Iranian immigrants, she and her sister grew up speaking Farsi at home and she remembers her initial struggles at school with English. But in the end, it helped. “Spanish was so much easier for me to learn since I already knew two languages,” she says. 
    Ms. Salazar sees a growing trend toward multilingualism at The Language Workshop. “Some families with children enrolled in our Spanish program are now signing up for Chinese classes,” she says. Their Chinese program is brand new and already attracting growing interest; the addition of a French track is in the works.

Language Immersion as a Tool 
    My research next led me to Académie Lafayette, a K-8 French immersion charter school serving students in the KCMO school district. Once again, I was struck by the complete absence of English. I listened to a fifth grade science class discussing “effervescence” at great length, and I was put on the spot when some curious kindergarteners asked me if I was there to “lire un livre” (thankfully, they were spared). 
    French in the building, from the very first day of kindergarten, is actually the rule at the Academie, and teachers strictly adhere to it. And it’s not just language: My visit left me with a sense of having traveled back through time to my days as an exchange student in Rouen, France. You cannot separate culture from language. Eric Roskam, vice principal at Academie Lafayette, says Francophone culture is what binds together the diverse teaching staff hailing from places like Senegal, Canada, France and Switzerland, and gives the school its identity. 
    However, as Mr. Roskam is quick to point out, French is not only a goal; it is a tool to develop critical thinkers and engaged learners. Contrary to my expectation, the vast majority of the 480 students at Academie Lafayette come from English-only households. Are they successful? The numbers suggest it. Academie Lafayette was the top performing Missouri charter school in 2008 and came within the top ten statewide in nearly all MAP tests. 
    Mr. Roskam attributes his students’ academic success to their increased focus. “If you had to learn how to prepare goulash from a Russian-speaking chef, you’d be paying extra attention; it’s the same for our students,” says Roskam. “It’s a challenge, and that’s why we start so early.”

Starting Early is Best 
    How early should you embark on a bilingual education for your child? As early as possible, even before your child speaks, according to Ms. Salazar. “Infants are learning one hundred percent of the time, and young children can easily mimic the pronunciation of a native speaker,” says Salazar. “Past age 12, this critical window closes.” 
    If you want your children to succeed in school and later in life, expose them to another language, and do it early. I have met countless parents who speak another language, yet let the opportunity go unused, for fear of confusing their child or alienating their spouse, or simply because it seems like too much work. I know from my own experience that it’s not always easy, but I can assure you it is worth it.

Tips to get started: 

  • Make room in your budget 
  • Ask around for a good program near you 
  • Consider what program works best for you, i.e. what languages are offered, does it allow you to sit in and learn alongside your children, etc. 
  • Look for educational materials to use at home 
  •  Search for publications or organizations like MultilingualChildren.org or BiculturalFamily.org to learn more 
  • Make it a family adventure

Eva Melusine Thieme lives in Overland Park with her husband and four children and is the author of a parenting blog at desperatemothers.wordpress.com.

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