There’s a lot I don’t remember about my school days, but one thing I recall with crystal clarity is that I did not like learning languages. My years of Hebrew school language lessons and high school Spanish classes were always a struggle, and my college’s lack of a language requirement was no small factor in my decision to enroll there.
Part of the problem may have been a counter-intuitive one: By the time I started trying to learn a second language, I knew my first one too well. “At a young age, you are able to hear sounds that are not in your native language,” says Sharon Huang, founder of Bilingual Buds, a pre-school Chinese and Spanish immersion program in Summit and NYC. “At around 6 months, babies begin to lose their ability to hear sounds that are not in their native language.” So at age 12, I was already deep into a language-learning deficit that had begun before I was even 12 months old. As we get older, it seems, we’re more likely to learn a second language by having a running translation of vocabulary, grammar and syntax going on in our heads the whole time. Young children, on the other hand, are still forging their initial connections of language to the world around them, so having more ways to describe the world isn’t going to be as big a leap.
During a visit to Vicky Chang’s Mandarin Chinese classroom at Nishuane Elementary school in Montclair, she and Dr. Janice Dowd explain the importance of learning more than just a second language. “We try to deliver our lesson based on a thematic unit. We don’t say Lesson #1 is color, Lesson #2 is body parts,” says Chang. “We introduce the culture, and within the culture we teach them to say the words. It’s related to social studies and language arts, even the yo-yo is related to phys ed. We are using Mandarin to reinforce their learning in science and math.”
The program she and Dr. Dowd are building is being funded by a FLAP (foreign language assistance program) grant that Dowd administers. “Its purpose it to improve the Chinese program in Montclair,” she says. “Part of the way we’re improving it is developing STEM units: Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. We’re preparing units to be taught in Chinese that reinforce STEM. The units will cover those areas so that kids don’t just study Chinese language, they study an area, and the means of doing it is Chinese. If a math concept isn’t totally solidified in the math class, when they come to Chinese class, it’s reinforced there.” Dowd is coordinating Montclair’s 5-year grant program with a team at Rutgers, and is looking to deliver curriculum-wide benefits through strategically designed language programs.
Many parents (including this one) may be intimidated by the idea of having to help with Mandarin homework, but Dr. Dowd points out that one of the best thing parents can do is reinforce school lessons by having the children teach them. “Just like we say it’s good for parents to read to children every day, the child can read to you. ‘This is what I learned today.’ They can teach you to count from 1-10,” she says.
The benefits of exposing children to a second language early and often go far beyond communication. “At a very young age, cognitively it really expands their thinking,” says Huang. “Studies show that children who learn that there are 2 different labels for the same item can think more flexibly and creatively.” And of course kids will have broader understanding of other cultures and their own, building a wider contextual framework for grasping how the world works.
“There’s the saying about ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,’” says Dr. Dowd. “I say, ‘Talk a minute in someone else’s mouth and you start to understand how other people think.’ You really understand the world around you, understand why people do the things they do, their traditions and culture. When we say ‘Think outside the box,’ learning another language takes you outside the box and broadens the mind.”
Are your kids learning other languages? Do you have tips for other parents who want to help their kids start speaking in second tongues? Have you seen benefits cross over to other subjects?