The brain-growing magic of foreign languages

... and six ways you can expose your kids early!

By Carol Lloyd

“I’m so atrocious at languages,” my Czech artist friend moans with her characteristic Slavic purr. “It vas always so harrrrd for me in school.”

I can’t help but roll my eyes. I consider myself a crackerjack study when it comes to foreign tongues because I can chat about politics in Mexico City, order multi-course meals in Paris, and bludgeon a greeting in Moscow. But my friend’s “atrocious” language skills dwarf mine as well as those of almost every American I know. In addition to Czech and English fluency, she speaks Russian, Italian, and German with proficiency.

The difference between us, aside from my windy American self-confidence and her Eastern European self-deprecation? Something more prosaic: She was educated in the “old country,” where despite Eastern bloc hardships like rancid meat, second-language instruction began in kindergarten, adding a third and fourth language later on. I, in turn, was educated in some of the best public schools our country had to offer, which meant starting French in sixth grade, then toiling in misery until my senior year. It was only when I got to college (and other countries) that I escaped the tedium of textbooks and low expectations.

Crazy findings from language laboratories

Whatever the reason behind our national reluctance toward foreign languages, it’s worth rethinking. Why? Because decades of research (for an extensive list of studies, go here) suggest that kids who learn more than one language get broad cognitive benefits. Not only do they do better in other subjects like reading and science, but they also score higher on standardized tests and exhibit better problem-solving and spatial abilities. If that’s not enough, research suggests second-language acquisition may even ward off senility and extend life. Finally, God forbid, if you should ever suffer brain damage to the hemisphere where your primary language abilities reside, you may be able to draw from your alternate language skills (which occupy a different region). There’s even evidence that second-language acquisition changes the brain’s anatomy and adds gray matter.

Why not simply learn a foreign language later on, in middle or high school or even college? Because for most of us, that’s not how it works. Studies show the earlier a child is exposed to a second language, the greater likelihood he or she will gain proficiency.

But don’t fret! Though our education system may underestimate the importance of chattin' up fern'ers, parents can expose children to another language during their early years. Our list of products, tips, and tricks to delight your children with the otherworldly pleasures of speaking in (foreign) tongues is a great place to start.

Discover that Language Is Music

This new book by Susanna Zaraysky, a polyglot who converses in English, Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Serbo-Croatian, is a great resource for parents who want to expose their children to a second language. Offering 70 tips for learning foreign languages, the book is based on the idea that we learn languages best not in the classroom but in cultural settings — through media, people, and especially music. Zaraysky recommends finding music your kids love in their target language and moving from listening to decoding to reading and writing. Most of us only experience this natural language learning through travel or love affairs, but this book shows the same principal is possible at home without plane tickets, tutors, and communication meltdowns.

Trick: Have your children shop for music with you to make sure the tunes capture their imagination. 

Cultivate a taste for the foreign

If you have a small handle on the language your kids are learning, designate one dinner where you try to speak it with them while eating a meal from that region. Even if you only learn a few words for the occasion, you'll still be teaching your children an important lesson: that language isn’t about verb conjugation, but a way of communicating with other people and learning about a culture. If you have friends who speak the language, invite them to dinner too.

Trick: Involve your children in the menu planning to make sure they “own” it and don’t feel the dinner is a trumped-up way to get them to practice language skills.

Meet Muzzy, the multilingual monster

Wondering where to start? BBC’s hilarious musical language program for children isn’t cheap, but for parents who want to ease their kids into a new language, you can’t do better than the clock-munching intergalactic monster and his bizarre earthling friends. The program allows you to choose from multiple languages — including Spanish, French, Mandarin, and Russian — and offers not only the entertaining DVDs but also interactive games, books, and CDs.

Trick: Let your children guide the process of what they learn and how. Some kids may simply want to watch the DVDs, while other will be more focused on the games.

Travel the city

Can’t afford a faraway vacation for a language-immersion program for you and your kids? Explore your region and pick a store, neighborhood, or restaurant where native speakers of your target language work. Plan the event beforehand by having your children practice at least six phrases around shopping or ordering from a menu. Write each phrase on a card and practice them on the way to the event (especially “please,” “thank you,” and “How delicious!”). Tell the shop owner or waiter the purpose of your outing, and you may be treated to an instant lesson.

Trick: Come up with a point system based on the number of words you and your children use or set a simple goal that you each need to speak at least five of the phrases (or newly learned phrases) before the family is treated to un gelato or un bonbon.

Hire a bilingual babysitter

Depending on where you live, this can be easy or difficult. But it’s a sure-fire way to ensure your children get exposure to another language. The best age to try this? As early as possible, but it’s possible to introduce a second-language babysitter even later in life. Older children may balk if they feel like they’re being forced into a foreign country in their own home, so it’s important that the babysitter speaks English and is sensitive to these feelings. Still, once kids form a positive relationship with their babysitter, it may be far more productive than any formal tutoring session.

Trick: Encourage the babysitter to plan art or cooking projects or play card games to teach your children simple phrases and distract them from the stress of pure conversation.

Practice with a panda

Little Pim, the award-winning DVD language series, now offers two iPhone apps, “Talking Coloring Book” and “Word Bag,” designed specifically for little iPhone hoggers (ages 1 through 6) to make their first foray into a foreign language. These simple apps won’t get your children chatting about the weather or anything else for that matter, but at $1.99 a pop, they will give kids an affordable taste of French, Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Hebrew, Japanese, or English. Although Little Pim's DVD series is reasonably clear and well made, we can’t recommend TV watching for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.

Trick: Use the apps as a tool for dealing with those trying moments while stuck in traffic jams or grocery lines.

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.