Twin Cities Toddlers Learn Foreign Languages

Great idea!  Now, if only other school systems would follow. From my own experience (I started learning a foreign language at age four), starting to learn a language from a very young age is the best way.  Young children love to soak in everything new. I know I did. Below is the article written by Maja Beckstrom,”Typical preschool? Nein,” from The Pioneer Press, July 25, 2010:

It looked like any other preschool craft project. A group of children sat around a table gluing paper cutouts of body parts onto a cartoon drawing of a boy.

What set the scene apart was language.

“Der Junge hat eine Nase,” explained teacher Sarah Dye as she handed a child a paper nose. “Hier ist der mund,” she said, handing him the mouth.

“I can’t find the legs,” another little boy complained.

Dye rattled off something in German. The boy listened with his head tipped to one side, and then, following her suggestion, lifted his paper to locate the missing legs that had slipped underneath.

Most students in the U.S. don’t study a foreign language until high school, but at Kinderstube, the routines of preschool are carried out entirely in German, from hand washing to circle songs. The program opened last year in the Germanic-American Institute on Summit Avenue in St. Paul and is an example of increasing interest in immersion language programs for toddlers and preschool-age children.

Nearly 50 children attend Kinderstube St. Paul and the original site in Minneapolis, which opened in 2005. Mundo Nuevo-New World Bilingual Child Care Center is opening what seems to be St. Paul’s first Spanish-language day care and preschool this fall, expanding from its current location in Inver Grove Heights. Similar Spanish preschools in Minneapolis, Hopkins, Plymouth and Burnsville have waitlists. Toddlers in Minneapolis are learning Ojibwe and Dakota. Concordia

Language Villages, which has run summer camps for years near Bemidji, branched into pre-K in 2006 and now has more than 200 preschoolers enrolled in metro-area classes in Spanish, Norwegian, Swedish and Mandarin Chinese.

“These programs for 3- and 4-year-olds are springing up around the country,” said Tara Fortune, immersion projects coordinator at the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota. “We are seeing more of them. Families are wanting to start their kids in learning a second language earlier and earlier.”

WITH NO ACCENT

When it comes to learning a second language, the earlier, the better. An adult must study for years to master a new tongue and will likely speak with an accent. Children, young children especially, seem to learn effortlessly. They mimic unfamiliar vowels and rolling r’s, absorb words without flashcards and pick up grammar on the fly. They are not self-conscious. No one has told them that learning a new language is hard.

“With an earlier start, you’re more likely to have native-like pronunciation,” Fortune said. “Your auditory processing is still able to perceive the nuances of different sounds.”

Babies are born with the ability to hear every human sound, but studies show our sensitivity begins to disappear when we’re 8 months old and declines through childhood.

“One of the things our brain naturally does is to weed out extraneous information,” Fortune said. “Why should I be able to hear the tones in Mandarin if I never am exposed to it and it’s not part of what I need to make sense of the world? If I do not hear it or need it, my ability to perceive the difference gradually goes away.”

Elizabeth Irish of St. Paul witnessed her 3-year-old daughter’s language advantage when she signed up for a Concordia parent-and-child Norwegian class.

“I was shocked and amazed at how much language she had picked up,” said Irish, who drove to Minneapolis for the weekly class. “I picked up a little bit, but nothing like what she picked up. It was amazing to me.”

Irish was so taken with the idea of her daughter learning another language that she sent Jane alone for two mornings per week of Norwegian the following year. Six hours a week of Norwegian does not qualify as immersion, but the exposure left Jane able to understand and speak quite a bit and made learning a third language easier. Irish now sends her daughter to Yinghua Academy, a Mandarin Chinese immersion charter school in Minneapolis, where the kindergarten teacher was convinced that someone was speaking to Jane in Mandarin at home.

“I think she has an aptitude for languages,” said Irish, who speaks only English. “She seemed to take to it more naturally than other kids. But starting Norwegian that early, I know, made a difference.”

SAVING TIME LATER

Parents enroll their children in a non-English preschool for a variety of reasons. Some want to prepare a child for immersion elementary school. As K-12 language-immersion programs have grown in popularity, demand has trickled down to the pre-K years. Other parents want their child to develop a connection to a family heritage. Nearly all parents are hoping to give their child an advantage in an increasingly global economy and multicultural Minnesota.

Maiken Givot enrolled her 5-year-old son, Pascal, at Kinderstube because she wanted an environment that would support her efforts at raising a bilingual son.

“I’ve learned several languages over the course of my life, and I thought if he could learn this from the get-go, it will save him so much time later in his life,” said Givot, a native of Germany. Since Pascal was born, Givot has spoken to him only in German. (Except when she “means business,” and speaks to him in English, she said.) He chats weekly on the phone in German with his Omi and Opa, his mother’s parents, who live in the German state of Saxony. Pascal’s American-born father and his nanny speak to him in English. Learning two languages from the cradle, Pascal is what linguists call a “simultaneous bilingual.”

“He speaks both languages without accent,” Givot said. “He doesn’t have to think twice to translate something into the second language. He will be able to choose where he wants to live and where he wants to work. He could become a simultaneous translator. He has something I do not have.”

Kids who do not have a native speaker in the home can still become fairly fluent in a second language, depending on how early the child starts, the amount of time at school, and the opportunities for continuing to build on the language. An immersion program is generally defined as at least a half-day every weekday, Fortune said.

“I think you need continuous exposure, day in and day out,” said Leah Johnson, whose daughter attended Mundo Nuevo in Inver Grove Heights. Johnson is now co-director of the center, which will open a second site in September in Hamline United Methodist Church in St. Paul.

“My daughter was there about three days a week, and she didn’t become completely fluent in that time,” Johnson said. “The more time you’re there, the more you’ll pick up. The kids who go to the center full time for more than one year, they come out very fluent.”

USE IT OR LOSE IT

Lori Gerten heard about Mundo Nuevo from a neighbor. Gerten took Spanish in high school and studied a semester in Spain during college. Mundo Nuevo, she thought, would be a painless way to give her child the language proficiency it took her years to achieve.

“I think it’s very important for children to be bilingual, and it’s a lot easier to learn when you’re young, when your brain is wired to receive it so quickly.”

Gerten’s daughter Grace heard nothing but Spanish at Mundo Nuevo from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., five days a week during the school year. After two years, “she was up there with a 4- or 5-year-old native Spanish speaker,” Gerten said. “Basically she would have to translate for me.”

Unfortunately, a child’s brain is also wired to forget quickly. Most children at Mundo Nuevo enrolled at Adams Spanish Immersion Magnet in St. Paul. For family convenience, Gerten sent Grace to an English-speaking school near home last fall, where she promptly lost her Spanish.

“She remembers things, but it’s nothing like it was,” Gerten said. “It’s sad; it breaks my heart.”

The use-it-or-lose-it principle is especially true for languages. But even a child like Grace who does not continue hearing a second language may have some advantages. Early exposure may create “an ear for the language” and a general sense of comfort and affinity that could make it easier to relearn later, Fortune said.

If a child continues with an immersion experience, the benefits are more striking. Compared with children schooled only in their mother tongue, immersion students score higher in a range of cognitive skills, including creative problem solving and nonverbal communication.

“That makes sense,” Fortune said. “These 3- or 4-years-olds are having to make sense of their environment and the teacher’s nonverbal cues until the language becomes meaningful to them.”

NATIVE LANGUAGE DOESN’T SUFFER

At Kinderstube, verbal and nonverbal communications clearly reinforce the other. After a teacher told the children in German that they would tidy up for circle time in five minutes, she held up her five fingers like a traffic cop and walked around the room repeating: “In funf Minuten. Funf Minuten.” When she invited the children to bring a chair to the circle, she pointed to a chair and then nodded with a smile and repeated “Ein Stuhl” as a child dragged one across the floor.

During circle time, the children sang a welcome song and then the teacher asked each child in turn how he or she was that day, looking straight at them with an open, curious gaze. Even a non-German speaker could tell what she was asking. The children responded in German with “good,” or in the case of one girl, “tired.”

Some of the children had just started Kinderstube this summer, with no previous German. They followed along with what other kids were doing, whether or not they understood what was being said. No one looked confused or unhappy, a concern for some parents. (If a child is hurt or upset, the teacher will switch to English. Nobody wants to traumatize a kid.)

Some parents who tour the immersion preschools also ask whether their child’s English will suffer. But studies of longstanding preschool programs, including a German program in Milwaukee and a Hawaiian-language program in Hawaii, have shown that not to be the case.

“English is not a problem,” Fortune said. “Immersion students do as well or better on academic tests given in English, even when they are immersed in a non-English language in preschool. The findings there are very clear and consistent.”

In large part, that’s because English is being spoken everywhere else a child goes during the week — at home, on television and in the grocery store.

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