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When Should My Child Start Learning a Second Language?

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As parents, at times we may experience the lingering thought, “Am I doing this right?” We’re worried about giving our children the best life possible as we make decisions for them every day. One of the greatest concerns shared by multicultural families is if we should expose our child to a second language. We share the same worries, often afraid a second language will cause confusion in our child’s educational development. But this is a common misconception. According to Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington, children have the ability to be “citizens of the world;” which is why we [at IBA] have been providing a bilingual education to the children of our community since 1976.

In Kuhl’s groundbreaking research on childhood development, she explains that children are the most susceptible to learning a second language up until the age of seven; and the sooner you start exposing them to multiple languages, the better. Kuhl reveals that infants are especially keen to developing language skills because they are able to discriminate all the sounds of all the languages of the world – no matter the language. She says, by the time we reach puberty, you essentially lose this ability and “as adults we become culture bound listeners” – unable to discriminate different language sounds outside of our own.

Learning a foreign language has proven to increase critical thinking skills and boost creativity, and according to studies at Cornell Language Acquisition Lab (CLAL), “children who learn a second language can maintain attention despite outside stimuli better than children who know only one language.”

According to Drs. King & Mackey, authors of The Bilingual Edge: Why, When, and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language, children exposed to a second language are more “mentally flexible.” For instance, when you ask a bilingual child, “How many ways could you use an empty water bottle?” they are more likely to come up with multiple, creative answers, like, “Fill it with sand and make it a paperweight.” (noodle.com)

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Besides the many cognitive benefits a second language has on your child, it also teaches them about culture and acceptance. At our bilingual preschool, we help your child not only develop their linguistic and cognitive skills, but we also focus on their physical, socio-emotional, and cultural growth. We are determined to give your child all of the 21st century skills they need to be successful in their future; and it all starts with language. Here are some tips for integrating a second language into your child’s education at home.

1. Reading with them
Reading to your child in Spanish is important at any age. For instance, like we mentioned before, an infant can differentiate between language sounds, but further, as your child grows they will start to grasp grammatical concepts more simply – in both languages. In fact, studies show that bilingual children are often better speakers and writers.

2. Use Technology
Duolingo is accessible online or via an app for both iphone and android users. Their motto is “Learn [insert language] for just 5 minutes a day. For free!” This program takes you through a variety of interactive lessons – auditory and visual. They have 27 languages (Spanish, French, German, Korean, etc.) you can learn as an English speaker, and you can either start as a “beginner” or you can take a “placement test” so you can build on the skills your child may already have. With this fun, free, online tool, your child will be speaking a second language in no time!

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3. Playing Interactive Games
Online tools are great for testing and tracking your child’s technical progress, but applying these lessons in real life is even better. Play games with your child like “I spy…” in Spanish to see if they recognize and grasp the tangible concepts of the language. This will also help your child gain confidence speaking and pronouncing the second language as it becomes more familiar to their daily life.

4. Cook Together
Continuing with the idea of making a second language more familiar to a child – integrate the culture into your household. Find recipes with your child in Spanish and make the grocery list together [in Spanish] of all the items you need. You can even integrate games like “I spy” into your trip to the grocery store. For instance if you need a tomato for your recipe and you’re in the store, “Estoy viendo algo rojo.” Let your child try to figure out what the object is you need for the recipe. Once it’s time to start cooking, let your child read the instructions off to you in Spanish and help with the cooking.

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5. Listen to Music
Another way to incorporate culture and language into the household is through music. You can sing nursery rhymes together [in Spanish and English], listen to Spanish radio stations in the car, and dance to Spanish music together. An important element of exposing your child to a second language is to have them understand where it comes from. Children constantly ask us “why” so try to fill in the gaps by educating them in as many different ways as possible.

If your child is two to five-years-old and you want these lessons to continue in the classroom, our multicultural preschool is open for enrollment. We’re open year round to give your child the best opportunities available by teaching the foundations of a multicultural education. For more information or to schedule a tour of our preschool contact Linnette R. Speel by email at lspeel@ibaboston.org or by phone at (617) 535 -1752.

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