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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.

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

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

12/20/2011:
"Just out of curiosity, if China is projected to be the #1 English speaking country in the world within 10-15 years, then why are we so concerned with learning their language for advancing our own interest. There must be a short list of emerging economies that will have a greater need for American influence/opportunities. America is in dire need to be ahead of being ahead. "
12/19/2011:
"I desire my children bilingual in Spanish/English and decided at Kinder to enroll at a Spanish immersion elementary school. My eldest child, after attending her second year is confusing both languages and below grade level, which I think has caused a delay in understanding core subjects. The immersion program teaches core academics in both Spanish and English. Now, I'm considering the program is not best for her learning style. I request her school to perform a student study to identify any learning challenges to help me decide if this is the best program. Please assist, I'm looking for advice. "
08/1/2011:
"This is to bring to your attention some new ways to keep kids interested in Learning Mandarin Chinese. We started s Chinese dubbed movies program since last Summer, partly to help kids kill time during the long summer. What really happened was very dramatic. The kids just loved these movies. Not many people know the existence of Chinese dubbed movies, the very movies we have been watching since our childhood. Well, many Disney movies have been dubbed into Chinese for the China market. These movies in turn become tools for kids to learn Mandarin Chinese. The following movies are available at http://www.ChineseDubbed.com. All most all of them have Mandarin Chinese (dubbed) / English (original) sound tracks, AND English / Chinese subtitles. It's important to have English subtitles. That way, kids will not get lost in translation! Since last summer (52 weeks away), our kids have built a 50 some Chinese dubbed movies collection. Try them, and you will be surprised that kids are encouraged by their success. You need to have some measured progress to keep the kids interested any time. "
08/1/2011:
"Love your post! Yes yes yes!!! Start them young! You offer up great ideas and tips here. Here are few more ideas that worked for us? (our sons speak pretty good Spanish at ages 7&9) U -Offer choices to encourage kids to speak (this also provides the word to repeat) -Meet them in their interest area. Legos? Puzzles? Soccer? Do it in the target language -Incorporate it into daily activities. Start replacing a few well-worn expressions. Like hurry up. Or I love you. Or let's go. Whatever you do, make it fun! "
05/9/2011:
"Mandarin Chinese could be a great choice for your 9 year old daughter. Spoken by 1.5 billion population, this language is getting even more important in this global economy. Just a thought!"
05/9/2011:
"You can train brains to process more contents when learning a foreign language, just as multi-tasking in computer terms. Take example of watching Chinese dubbed movies. Kids learning Chinese can have fun watching their favorite Disney movies, e.g., Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan, that they are already familiar with, however, dubbed in Mandarin Chinese. While listening to Chinese conversations, they can read English subtitles, thus without getting lost. Yes, twice as much information are processed, and most importantly, kids understand what's going on. Very rewarding experience."
05/6/2011:
"What would be a good second language choice for my 9 year old gifted daughter?"
10/13/2010:
"That's true. I am starting my second year teaching English to spaniard preschoolers in an italian school. I am so fascinated about how languages changes their attitudes and their understanding of the world and the way how express themselves in many other ways."
08/26/2010:
"My 4th grader has been attending a dual-immersion school since 1st grade. He is fluent in Spanish and is reading at a 6th grade level in English. He consistently performs way above average on all the standardized tests he takes. The amazing part about his school is the fact that half the kids come from Spanish dominant families. So, he is not only learning Spanish, but is learning to appreciate other cultures. He has a maturity and appreciation for diversity that you don't see with most 9-year olds! We definitely need to rethink our education system in the U.S."
08/16/2010:
"Even Better-Bring Spanish to your child's school! Futura Language Professionals offers before and after school Spanish enrichment classes. Fun theme-based or conversational classes are available. All classes use songs, games and cultural activities your children are sure to love. Check out Futura! www.futuraadventures.com (Preschool, elementary and middle school classes available)"
07/19/2010:
"I purchased Muzzy for my daughter and tried to get her interested in the poor quality and boring material that came with it. I gave it to goodwill and am searching for something that will actually work"
07/19/2010:
"My child is fluent in 3 languages, since they are spoken at home, since the age of 2. It has never been any problems with mixing them up. I'm so happy for my child to have had this opportunity given. "
07/19/2010:
"How do you explain why Hispanic kids do so poorly in school? They all speak fluent English and Spanish. According to that article they should score above averge in all subjects statistically speaking as they brain develop extra gray matter. By the way my kid is bi-lingual and very smart, but I do not attribute it to two languages. She was very smart from the get go when she know only one language. (Not English) Did everything early (walk, talk, etc.) I think it is bunch of boloney spread by Educational Industrial Complex that wants to make more and more money teaching."
07/19/2010:
"I originally moved my daughter from private school to a public school with a foreign language immersion program hoping that the added challenge of a foreign language would help with her behavioral problems(she is a fast learner and becomes a behavioral problem after she has learned and the other kids haven't caught on yet). I'm now a big supporter of these types of programs for the cognitive aspects. I've noticed improvements in other areas besides just language since she has started learning a second language (BTW, it's French in case you were wondering). "
07/19/2010:
"Another fun way to 'practice' training a child's ear is to let them watch their favorite DVD with the language set to a different language (many popular DVDs come with a French and/or Spanish option on the disc)."
07/19/2010:
"Brava! Introduce them to Neruda's poetry, to Pagnol's prose and great music by Mecano or Mana and they will be wounded for life. Why do so many Americans eat out at Indian, Chinese, and Mexican restaurants and never make the mono-lingual connection.. Even the Marine Corps teaches you a little latin.. Keep those kids struggling witih a modern langauge!"
07/19/2010:
"Learning a foreign language at a young age is great, but CDs, videos, toys and games don't work, not for small children anyway. Children needs live interaction in the target language for a sustained periods of time. After-school foreign languages classes are time-consuming and expensive, nannies are even more expensive. Why can't our local public elementary schools offer more foreign language classes like other developed (even developing)countries? "
07/19/2010:
"Berkeley USD has a program called two-way immersion that combines native Spanish speakers and native English speakers in one class beginning in kindergarten and continuing through to the 8th grade. The students start out with instruction taught at a ratio of 75%:25% Spanish to English in kindergarten. That ratio gradually changes each year until it is even almost even at 6th grade and then reverses until by the 8th grade, instruction is taught at a ratio of 25%:75% Spanish to English. Recent studies have shown that while students may not perform well on standardized test in the early grades, by the 6th grade, the student catch up with the median, and by high school, the students surpass the median on an upward curve. That's BOTH native Spanish and native English speaking students. So this study demonstrating the benefits of early secondary language instruction is not surprising to the parents of students who came through the two-way immersion program. It's too bad this kind of program is not reflecting in the ratings. If they were, a school like Rosa Parks Elementary would probably be close to a '10'."
07/19/2010:
"No doubt learning a foreign language at a young age is great, but videos, CD, toys, games just don't work, not for young kids anyway. Kids need real people interacting with them in the target language for a sustained amount of time. Unfortunately, hauling kids to language classes is time consuming and expensive, hiring a bilingual nanny is even more expensive. Public schools need to offer more foreign languages classes in elementary school!"
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