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May 29, 2014

Now or Luego?

By Tampa Bay Parenting

Three-year-old Brian runs to greet his new friend Enrique with a jubilant, “¡Hola amigo!” In another setting, little Maria whispers please to a child playing in the play area. Her caregiver is thrilled after experiencing two weeks of Maria not saying one word in Spanish or English since moving from her home in Mexico. These scenes could take place every day in every state across our country if only we would take the time to help develop a generation of bilingual children.

Most of us live in very diverse communities, surrounded by people who speak a language other than English, whose homes emanate lovely aromas of their ethnic foods and whose families practice different traditions. We live in a very global economy where knowing a second language is no longer a luxury. As parents, we have witnessed our public schools unable to meet this challenge of providing our youth with second language instruction during the elementary school years (the time in a child’s life when research has determined is a better time to acquire a second and third language than middle or high school).

What better gift can we give our own children than the gift of second language instruction? Providing this learning in the first 5-10 years of life not only makes it easier for the child to be wired for all future language learning; it also opens up their heart and mind to accepting those who look, speak, and even act differently than their immediate circle of family and friends. Our society has less and less room for prejudice, and learning about other people beyond our sphere of influence helps prepare us for a future of diversity.

Recent research suggests that many benefits are derived from learning more than one language early in life. A majority of children in various bilingual learning studies demonstrated enhanced cognitive development (what some refer to as a boost in brain power), increased problem solving abilities, a richer cultural awareness, higher standardized test scores in both math and verbal sections, a keen ability to block out potential outside interferences, and these children read sooner than their monolingual peers.

You might be thinking as you read this, “No way! I want my child to concentrate on learning English before he gets all confused with Spanish.” The myth that exists about children learning two languages can become language delayed and/or confused is just that – a myth. Children are hard-wired from birth through about ten years old to learn several languages. Young children will learn the new language more quickly, retain it better, and speak it with native or near-native pronunciation. In fact, Newsweek and Time both ran feature articles suggesting that second language instruction should be begin as early as possible in a child’s life, and these major publications stated that the “window of opportunity” to introduce a child to a second and third language is between birth and age ten.

Many parents deliberate over how to bring a new language into their child’s life – particularly when they as the adults speak only one language. Many experts agree that the bilingual approach for the very young child is best. Teach the new language alongside the native language. It’s as easy as pointing to a cat and saying “cat” then “gato.” Linguistic experts agree that it’s just as easy to teach a baby two words for one item as it is to teach only one word.

This bilingual method provides continuing education in the child’s native tongue while acquiring skills in the new one. Language experts agree the strong sense of pride, higher self-esteem, and long term retention associated with this bilingual approach is reason enough to choose this route for the younger years. According to many experts immersion programs, where the child will hear only the targeted new language, should be reserved for those in middle school years and beyond.

We have witnessed as a society the growing acceptance of this bilingual method. Whether it’s on children’s entertainment media with PBS and Dragon Tales, Nickelodeon and Dora and Diego, or even The Disney Channel with Clay, teaching children some words in Spanish right alongside English. Most major media outlets are hopping on the bilingual bandwagon, hoping to stir the pot of second language learning!

As our children’s first teacher we can give our children even more than these 22-minute shows by searching the Internet for free resources, seeking out local community events that highlight your targeted language and culture, and browsing library shelves for CDs, DVDs, and books that are presented in a bilingual manner. Again, I stress that your young child be allowed to keep his native language in the learning environment while introducing the new language right alongside it.

Our world is increasingly bilingual, and we need to prepare our children for it. Students of second language instruction have access to a greater number of career opportunities later in life, are wired to learn multiple languages, and tend to be more creative than monolingual students. The benefits of second language instruction have been proven, and it’s time to begin the instruction now – when the child is young, when the language acquisition part of the brain is more accepting and while the child is excited about new languages, new cultures and new people.

Beth Butler, children’s recording artist, bilingual educator and keynote speaker is the founder of the Boca Beth Program, which introduces Spanish to young children. Learn more at www.bocabeth.com.

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