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A growing number of parents are enrolling their babies, toddlers, and preschoolers in foreign-language classes -- and the numbers are expected to rise. "The popularity of such shows as Dora the Explorer, which teaches Spanish, and Ni Hao Kai-lan, which teaches Mandarin Chinese, suggests that parents want to be more proactive in jump-starting foreign language education for their children," says Yani A. Peyton, a bilingual mother of twins and the director of Fun with Foreign Language (funwithforeignlanguage.com) in Bel Air, MD. This should come as no surprise, since numerous studies show that speaking a second language boosts cognitive, memory, and listening skills.
In fact, research published in Psychological Science suggests that simply thinking in a foreign language helps people make quicker and better life decisions. Furthermore, a study by the College Entrance Examination Board reports a direct correlation between foreign language study and high SAT scores. People who speak a foreign language often enjoy better career prospects and higher standards of living. And there are even health benefits -- recent research from the University of Chicago suggests that a second language also helps prevent dementia later in life.
Experts say that kids should begin to learn a foreign language from a young age; the younger, the better. "A child is born with the ability to learn any language in the world," explains Caryn Antonini, creator of Early Lingo (earlylingo.com). "The older the child gets, certain windows close in terms of language acquisition, but so long as the child learns the language before puberty [age 12 or 13], the child should be able to speak with a native accent." If you can't afford lessons right now, books, CDs, and DVDs in your language of choice can be effective. "Children can still learn from a parent who is not fluent. The important aspect is that the parent is available to learn alongside the child and interact. Fluency is not necessary," says Andrew Finan, who runs a language blog (languagepie.wordpress.com) and who invented KLOO (kloogame.com), a game that uses color cards to form sentences and help kids learn words in different languages.
How do you know which language is best for your child? "Some parents choose a heritage language, meaning that Mom, Dad, Grandma, or another relative speaks the language," says Leslie Lancry, founder of Chicago-based Language Stars (languagestars.com). "This is great because it provides the student real-life experience to use the language and gain confidence." But if only English is spoken at home -- and you're not sure which language to choose -- here are the six foreign languages experts feel will best benefit kids for their futures.Spanish
As the second most common language in the U.S., with 34 million speakers, Spanish is a popular choice for parents. It's also one of the easiest foreign languages for English speakers to learn. "Much of the Spanish vocabulary is similar to English, and Spanish is a phonetic language, which means that words are pronounced as they are written," Peyton says.
Consuelo Bova, CEO of the children's foreign language learning store SmartMouthLearning.com, also sees Spanish as a good foundation for learning other languages: "For a 'first' second language, the learning opportunities and materials are plentiful for children just about anywhere in the U.S. And with its similarity to other Romance languages (French, Italian, Portuguese), it can be an excellent jumping-off point for a child who comes to love languages."
Jonathan Riedel, CEO of Forword Translations (forwordtranslations.com), agrees. "I think that if people are looking for careers with languages, Spanish is always a good, safe bet. There is an incredible number of native Spanish speakers in the U.S. and in the world (about the same number as native English speakers)."French
According to statistics, more than 1 ? million Americans speak French, making it the fourth most common language in the U.S. "Spanish and French are the most popular languages to teach children. In both cases, there is an element of 'teach what you know,' and since so many parents have been exposed (as native speakers or through school programs) to French and Spanish, these are the languages they can more easily pass along to their children," Bova says. College degrees in the language are becoming more common. "If one wants a language for international business, politics, or travel, French is best," says Pablo Solomon (pablosolomon.com), a former teacher, counselor, and consultant to the U.S. Department of Education. "French is also the language of choice in the arts." According to the 2012 Tourism Highlights publication from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), France is ranked No. 1 on the international tourist list. (China is No. 3, Spain is No. 4, Italy is No. 5.) And with more people traveling abroad, "they may have a goal of traveling to a French-speaking country where the language can be reinforced for the child," Lancry points out.