The Benefits of Bilingualism for Early Learners

All across the region, families are finding themselves living in increasingly multicultural, multilingual communities. With more people from foreign countries moving to ours every day and the world itself getting smaller and smaller thanks to Internet technology and modern transportation, the ability to learn and communicate in multiple languages becomes all the more relevant and useful. But in addition to being able to read, write and speak another tongue, an introduction to foreign language education at an early age can start students down a path toward greater achievement and increased opportunities. Studying other languages, cultures and traditions has the potential to affect young minds in all sorts of critical ways – making for well rounded, curious and outwardly aware individuals.


Opportunities to expose children to foreign language instruction in both public and private schools are cropping up throughout Massachusetts. Available programs range from preschools featuring total immersion environments to grade schools that start with language introduction from the very first year. And while the idea of children learning to speak Spanish, Mandarin or French before they’ve mastered their native language might still seem Greek to you, there’s not only mounting evidence in terms of the benefits, but also a considerable spike in demand.


The Appeal of Learning Another Language


According to Martine Fisher, director of languages for the Milton Public Schools, there are clear advantages of starting to learn a second language at a young age. From having a powerful impact on mental development and cognitive skills to supporting academic achievement in disciplines such as math and verbal, there are numerous reasons why the school system adopted a French immersion program 25 years ago, followed by an elementary Spanish program five years later.


Additional benefits cited by Fisher include developing near native pronunciation and intonation, improved understanding of the student’s native language, a head start toward high school and college language requirements and broader employment opportunities. That’s not to mention the positive effect on attitudes and beliefs about other cultures and peoples.


Pine Village Preschool, one of the first and only “full immersion” programs in the region, strongly believes children who are exposed to foreign languages are better problem solvers and exhibit improved executive functioning abilities, such as being able to focus on particular tasks. They say their kids show a greater awareness of overall language development, in addition to having an easier time learning a third language. Perhaps more importantly, children who are exposed to a foreign language and culture have a greater understanding of other perspectives, are able to communicate to a broader range of people and basically grasp they’re part of one big planet that represents a greater whole.


Maurice Fakoury, head of World Languages at the British International School of Boston, believes in-school language instruction broadens minds. The research he has seen shows kids who study a language may at first be a little slowed down from having to spread attention more widely. But once they draw parallels between their own mother tongue and another language, it will actually accelerate literacy across the board. Fakoury says the advantages of starting early resides in creating a familiarity with phonology and pronunciations – along with building up enthusiasm toward doing something different. “They’re not as self-aware and self-conscious when they’re younger,” he says. “The earlier you can get kids to start, the easier it is to motivate them to view it as a worthwhile thing to do.”


Read more about the benefits of learning a second language on the next page.

What It Means to Be Immersed


Emma LaVecchia, co-founder of Pine Village Preschool (which launched in 2001 and has since expanded to eight locations), says there are three different types of immersion programs she’s aware of – full immersion, dual language and bilingual.


“Duel language programs basically offer instruction in a dominant language and a secondary language,” she explains.


This means they structure some of the day in Spanish or another language and the other part, around 50 percent, in English. They teach specific courses in one or the other of those languages.


Preschools labeling themselves bilingual might do anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of a second language and English.


“The bilingual programs are typically more ambiguous. They don’t necessarily define the percentage of the dominant language or the nondominant language,” LaVecchia says. “And our model is full immersion, where the intent is the staff, teachers, educators and directors all speak to the children (in Spanish) basically 100 percent of the day.”


Parents can enroll children in Pine Village at 15 months on, and there are no pre-qualifications for entering the program. “They can join at any time as long as there’s space available. There’s no minimum number of years,” says LaVecchia. They do request children come at least two days a week. “You need anywhere from two to five days to have the influence of the second language take effect.” She says children attending the school for two or more years usually leave testing completely bilingual.


Along with being in an environment where another language is spoken exclusively throughout the day, a very big part of Pine Village is the cultural element. The teachers come from many different Spanish-speaking countries, and they’re encouraged to teach the songs, customs, stories and traditions of their cultures. “I think the whole idea of language, not just the benefit of being bilingual, but the brain benefits of exposure to multiculturalism and languages is really creating a lot of interest,” LaVecchia says.


In-School Language Instruction


Fakoury makes it clear to prospective parents the British International School does not offer immersion, but rather an early start program that begins with what they call a sensitization to French in the pre-K class.


“Right from pre-K, the kids will have one hour a week, two half-hour sessions of French, where we use songs and music, games and things like that to infuse the kids and get them beginning to listen to the language and sounds,” he says.


That goes on until second grade, and then Spanish is also added in. Children get both languages for an hour a week through grade five, when it jumps to three hours a week per language.


“Then when we get to grade six, for the next three years right up until year 10, they do both Spanish and French in parallel, at which point they choose to take either one or two of their languages. And they keep that right up until the end.”


Along the way the school makes adjustments based on when the child enters the program, what her native language is and how she is progressing in subject work. Fakoury says the kids that have been with them for many years and really put the work in will be near fluent upon conclusion.


In Milton Public Schools, families are given the choice between two distinct paths for their child’s education: the English Innovation Pathway (core elements of education, including science, technology, engineering and math, are taught in English with weekly Spanish classes) or the French Immersion Program. Spanish starts in grades one and two with a weekly 30-minute session followed by 90-minute weekly sessions in grades three, four and five.

Read more about the benefits of learning a second language on the next page. Plus, how to help your kids learn a second language. 

The French Immersion Program differs in that students are taught entirely in French in language arts, math, science and social studies in grades one and two. Art, music and phys-ed are in English. In grades three and four, half of the total instruction time is in French, the other half in English based on individual subjects. That goes to 30 percent French in fifth grade. Both programs continue through middle school into high school, typically resulting with students achieving advanced level placement and the opportunity to successfully transfer their linguistic skills to the study of another language.


Seize the Day to Learn a Language


“Language learning is tremendously important. We’re living in a world that’s becoming more and more interconnected,” says Fakoury, adding that from education to business to entertainment, it’s all going to increasingly be offered in multiple languages and multiple cultures. “There’s a rich world out there and it’s a shame to miss out on a lot of it.”


While getting your child into an immersion preschool, such as Pine Village, may depend on a number of variables, including making it past the waitlist, foreign language educational opportunities are increasingly prevalent throughout the region. Parents are advised to find out what’s available to them and really listen when looking at schools and programs to learn which represents the right fit. Often the best way to go is visiting the school to witness how it operates firsthand.


When Milton Public Schools and Pine Village started, there were few other language education programs at the elementary school age or younger. “So many other opportunities have popped up around Boston and around the country. I think we’re kind of on this trend right now where everyone is realizing the benefits of exposure to language at a young age,” says LaVecchia. “We are excited because there’s interest in the community and it’s a great opportunity for what we’ve been trying to study and learn and promote for such a long time.”


Brian Spero is a frequent contributor to Boston Parents Paper.



How Can I Help My Kids Master a Second Language?


While the thought of your little one learning, playing and communicating in another language may certainly be thrilling, it also comes with a host of concerns including how you can best support them if you can’t understanding the language. The following are some helpful tips for parents inspired by information supplied by Milton Public Schools.


• Provide a supportive environment and encourage your child to work neatly, follow directions and give her best effort just as she would in any other subject.


• Have your child read aloud to you and provide encouragement by praising his efforts.


• Don’t ask your child to translate what she is reading, but rather tell you the story in her own words.


• Ask your child to tell you about his school day.


• Encourage your child to sing the songs learned in class.


• Proudly display pieces of art and project work.


• Visit the library and encourage your child to choose books and videos in the language she is studying.


• Schedule play dates with students from class.


• Set up a reading buddy (perhaps an older sibling or an older language student from your neighborhood).


• Use the Internet to access language resources for children.


• Have your child teach the family what he has learned.


• Have your child count or tell you the color of things around the house in another language.


• Watch your child’s favorite DVD and select the foreign language track.

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25 Sep 2015

By Brian Spero