When Louise Sanders adopted her daughter, Camille, from Panama, she thought it was important to teach her about her heritage. So just before Camille turned 3, Louise enrolled her in a Spanish-language school in their Tucson, Arizona, community. Now, at 3 1/2, Camille loves to sing Spanish songs, and sometimes she even answers questions more quickly when her teachers ask her in Spanish rather than in English.
"Kids this age are developing language skills rapidly, and they quickly absorb whatever they hear," says Erika Levy, Ph.D., assistant professor of speech and language pathology at Columbia University Teachers College, in New York City. "They can learn to understand new words in two different languages at an incredibly fast rate." And you don't need to enroll your child in formal language classes to hear her repeat words and songs in a new tongue -- just listen in when she's watching television shows like Dora the Explorer, Go, Diego, Go! and Sesame Street, which teach basic Spanish words to the preschool set. Lots of parents are also supplementing this elementary knowledge with bilingual books, toys, and CDs.
Why are so many families jumping on the bilingual bandwagon? "In our increasingly global world, parents realize that their kids will benefit from knowing more than one language," says Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign-language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics, in Washington, D.C. "There's definitely been a grassroots push for more bilingual education in preschools." Exposing your child to a second language will help him learn about other cultures. Research has shown that bilinguals tend to be more creative thinkers than those who speak one language, and one study suggests that their brain functions may stay sharper as they age.
Here's how to get your little linguist to begin learning.
- Start now. Two- and 3-year-olds are not only increasing their vocabularies, they're starting to recognize the speech patterns they've been hearing since birth. The earlier you introduce a second language, the easier it will be for your child to pick up its unique sounds. The ability to hear different phonetic pronunciations is sharpest before age 3, and we lose the capacity to hear and produce certain sounds if we aren't exposed to them early on, according to Fran?ois Thibaut, director of the Language Workshop for Children, in New York City. So just hearing a television show, listening to music, or learning a few words in a second language will give your child essential tools for appreciating it now and learning to speak it later.
- Create a casual learning environment. The best way for a child to learn to understand a new language is for him to hear people speaking it fluently, says Thibaut. If he's exposed to conversations, he'll begin to pick up the sounds and the natural accent. Choose a language that is spoken in your neighborhood, on a television show your child can watch regularly, or one that is offered in classes or playgroups in your area. "If you have a bilingual babysitter, encourage her to speak her native language to your child exclusively," says Rhodes. Two- and 3-year-olds love to mimic what they hear, and soon they'll begin to understand the meanings of short words and phrases.
- Teach a word at a time. If you don't want to do formal lessons, you can introduce bilingual basics by pointing out to your child that objects can have two names -- one in each language. "When my 2-year-old son, Constantinos, sees a spider, he'll say 'spider' to me in English and then say it in Greek to my husband," says Cassandra Attard, of Nottingham, New Hampshire. "He knows they mean the same thing." As your child learns new words, tell him what they're called in a second language too.
- Have reasonable expectations. Of course, a child won't learn to speak another language fluently from hearing words, watching videos, or singing songs. But simply being exposed to a language will help her understand phrases when she hears them. So even though you probably won't be having a French conversation with your child very soon, if you say "bonne nuit" every night at bedtime, she'll figure out what you mean.