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To master a language, start learning it early

The Economist

By Johnson - May 10, 2018

THOSE who want to learn a foreign language, or want their children to, often feel they are racing against the clock. People seem to get worse at languages as they age. Children often learn their first without any instruction, and can easily become multilingual with the right exposure. But the older people get, the harder it seems to be. Witness the rough edges on the grammar of many immigrants even after many years in their new countries.

Scientists mostly agree that children are better language learners, but do not know why. Some posit biological factors. Is it because young brains have an extreme kind of plasticity? Or, as Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, argues, an instinct for language-learning specifically, which fades as the brain ages and (in evolutionary terms) is no longer needed? Others think children have special environments and incentives, not more conducive brains. They have a strong motivation to communicate with caregivers and imitate peers, and are not afraid of making mistakes in the way adults are.

Is Language Immersion Right for My Child?

Education Week

By Heather Singmaster - March 28, 2016

My son is in kindergarten and spends half of his day learning in English and half in Chinese at one of the oldest Chinese immersion programs in the country. I didn't think twice about entering the lottery for admission—in fact, it's a large part of the reason I left New York City and moved across the country to Portland, Oregon, where 10 percent of public school students are enrolled in immersion programs.

Parents regularly ask me if immersion is right for their child. I almost unequivocally say yes—years of research show that immersion language programs give children a leg up academically—this applies regardless of the socio-economic or ethnic background of a child. Students at "below average"  levels of academic ability" have been shown to succeed in immersion programs and will learn the second language better. Not to mention that speaking a second language is a distinct advantage when seeking a job and can result in higher pay. Of course, every child is different and there are circumstances where immersion may not the best option.


Here are some of the common questions parents have about immersion and the answers I give:

Is it true that language immersion is better for their brains?
This is always the first question I get and the answer is 'yes.' There are years of research showing that the brains of bilingual people have better executive function, which is what allows you to focus on problem solving, moving between tasks, and recalling words and information. All are keys to being successful in life. 

Even though there is some recent disagreement about this benefit to brain development (it is a difficult subject to research and the trials and results are not always consistent), there are plenty of other advantages to learning a second language.

Will my child be confused?
Until relatively recently, especially among immigrants to the United States who speak a language other than English at home, there was a strong belief that learning two languages was dangerous and would lead to confusion in children. Numerous studies, however, have proven that this is not true. For instance, Jaren Diamond, who has worked extensively in Papua New Guinea, shows that children there begin learning at least two languages from birth. Most people he knows there speak more than five languages—and don't confuse them.

However, as children are learning, and even if they study the same language for 12 years or more, they will mix up words. A word meant to come out in English will come out in the second language, and vice versa. But a new study by Judith F. Kroll, a Pennsylvania State Distinguished Professor in psychology, linguistics, and women's studies, posits that this mental struggle is good for the brain—this daily exercise of choosing between two languages actually makes the brain stronger and improves the executive function. Jaren Diamond hypothesizes that the daily skill these bilinguals are practicing is the solving of problems—specifically problems with rules that are confusing or constantly changing, or where misleading information is involved.

Do children really learn better in elementary school? Can't they just wait until high school?
I do not want to discourage language learning at any age and depending on where you live, high school may be the only option to learn a second language. However, if given the opportunity, start your child young. While the concept of the "brain soaking up language the younger you are" is a very difficult one to research, an innovative new study shows that indeed, the younger children are, the better at learning a second language. It shows that there may be a time period where the brain is more sensitive to learning grammar and therefore, younger learners will master grammar rules that older learners will always struggle with. Additionally, as the study points out for younger learners, "the habits of pronunciation and grammar of their first language are less deeply ingrained and thus easier to overcome."

There are other reasons as well. Think back to your high school years and what your priorities were—was learning a second language one of them? Especially when you may have only studied it a couple of times a week for an hour at a time? I bet not. Meanwhile, my son, who began immersion at the age of two and a half, will tell you that he is Chinese because he speaks the language and will one day travel to China—he is fully invested! He also has the luxury of time that most high school students and adults don't have—it's a focus of half his day. And he isn't afraid to speak Chinese and make mistakes, a carefree attitude that older learners don't usually have.

There is also the fact that the more hours you spend learning a language, the higher your fluency will be. You can't make up for hours lost in your youth, but you can give those hours to your child through immersion.

Will they learn English as well as their peers who are not in immersion?
Yes! This is one of the most studied topics in immersion language learning. What the research consistently reveals is that students show a temporary lag in specific English skills, such as capitalization, punctuation, spelling, word knowledge, and word discrimination on standardized tests. But after approximately the fourth grade, they perform better than their monolingual peers on tests in English. There are no long-term consequences to their ability to speak or read English or to their literacy development. And for parents worried about the vocabulary of their bilingual learner, consider this: their overall vocabulary is actually double that of a monolingual—they know the same word in English and their second language.

If you need further proof, new research from RAND compared 27,000 students over ten years here in Portland. The headline of the study is that immersion students outperformed their non-immersion peers in English reading by seven months in fifth grade and nine months in eighth grade. That is basically a full school year ahead.

This study was particularly groundbreaking because the students here are assigned to the programs by lottery, meaning that this was one of the first randomized trials representing students from all different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. It also showed that English Language Learner (ELL) students enrolled in these immersion programs were less likely to be an ELL by the sixth grade.

Will they also do better in math and science?
The RAND study did not show benefits for math and science, but also showed no detriment. In fact, for the Japanese, Russian, and Chinese programs, there may be "modest benefits." Other studies of students in French immersion programs in Canada have shown some superior levels of achievement in these subject areas on standardized tests. So we can't say yes, but we can't say no, either.

I won't be able to help them with their homework!
This is a very practical concern of parents and one that comes up repeatedly. Teachers are aware that parents are not able to provide the assistance at home that they would if their child were learning in the home language. Therefore, many immersion schools offer afterschool homework help. Local afterschool programs may also offer this kind of assistance. My son's school set up a closed Facebook group for the parents in our class. There are often homework questions posed and answered there. Students can also find a peer to be their homework buddy.

Granite School District (located in Utah, where there are more immersion students than any other state in the country), has this helpful guide for parents of immersion students.

I'm convinced—but there is no immersion program in my school district.

Start Your Own
If you are motivated and energetic, you can work with your school board and school to start an immersion program. Asia society offers free handbooks to help you—they are targeted for starting a Chinese immersion program, but the information can just as easily apply to other languages. 

Look for Heritage Programs
If starting your own program is too daunting a task (I don't blame you!) or not possible given budgetary or political constraints, look for classes offered by local heritage groups. They often provide language classes in the evenings or on the weekends. Start by searching the Heritage Program directory. This listing may not be complete given the constant change in offerings—so don't despair if this doesn't yield results, do another, broader online search for your community. Local universities or community colleges may also have some offerings for students. For instance Confucious institutes around the country offer Chinese classes. 

And don't forget about language camps in the summer. Searching the Startalk site—a federally funded program with offerings across the country in multiple languages—is a good starting place.

Private Companies and Schools
Private companies/tutors like Language Stars in the DC and Chicago area offer weekday classes for young children and weekend classes for school-age children. Companies like Berlitz have multiple locations and private tutors are also available in most areas. There may also be a private school near you that offers immersion. 

Online Learning
If all else fails, turn to technology! There are online classes (again, for Chinese, Confucius Institutes offer online courses). Search Coursera or university websites—for instance a quick search brought up a free online French course from Carnegie Mellon. Try to find one that offers the ability to speak directly with a native speaker to ensure proper pronunciation. Or combine online courses with a weekly session on a site like WeSpeke that matches language learners around the world together for free. Check your local library, many offer free access to language learning software. For parents who want to explore a language alongside their children, try Duolingo (I use it to brush up on my Spanish).

Immersion: the benefits are many, the arguments against it are few. It strengthens the brain, improves understanding of native language, and gives students an advantage later in life when looking for a job.


5 Reasons Why Your Child Should Attend a Language Immersion Preschool

From CARELULU.COM - April 20, 2015

So, you have decided to give your child the gift of languages. Congratulations, your child will thank you for it! As promised in our previous post about raising multilingual children, in this article we are going to dive deeper into language immersion preschool programs and the reasons why they are a great idea!

Let’s start with a quick rundown on what language immersion preschool programs are, exactly, and how they differ from traditional language classes. A traditional class means that one class (the language itself, e.g. Spanish) is taught in the foreign language. The other classes in the child care or preschool program are taught in English. The result is that a relatively small percentage of the child’s day is spent speaking Spanish.
In a language immersion daycare or preschool, most (or all) classes are taught in the foreign language, resulting in a higher percentage of the day spent speaking it. There are different types of immersion programs, depending your goals as parents. All programs assume that one language (let’s say English) is being spoken at home and you, parents, would like another language (let’s say Spanish) to be learned at preschool. Maybe even a third language (let’s say Mandarin).

Complete immersion
 is probably the most popular choice and means that 100% of the classes are taught in Spanish. This type of program is one-way, i.e., the program is designed to bring about fluency in Spanish. It is assumed that your children will become fluent in English because it is spoken at home.

Partial immersion
 means that 50% of the classes are taught in Spanish. The program is therefore two-way and brings about fluency in both Spanish and English. “Triple play” programs are for the truly ambitious and are variations that involve a two-way complete immersion with Spanish and Mandarin at school and (supposedly) English at home. These types of programs are rare.
Now that we’ve covered the types of language immersion preschool programs, let’s cover five reasons why they are a good idea. You can probably put a price tag on the first one, but probably not on the last one!

1. Bang for your buck.
 Children have a window of a few years during which it is easy for them to learn languages. Extraordinarily easy in fact. The “cutoff” age is estimated to be about 10 years. An immersion daycare or preschool may be a little more expensive than an “English only” one, but the return on investment in their language education when they are less than 5 years old is hundreds of times higher than when they are 15, and probably thousands of times higher than when they are 20, especially if you consider the cost of college these days!

2. Language absorption.
 Children are little language sponges from about the age of 6 months until about the age of 10. The more you send their way, the more they absorb. If you want them to absorb more, it makes sense to send as much their way as soon as possible. The sheer volume of the foreign language being used in immersion programs is much higher than in a traditional language class, of course.

3. Methodology.
 In a language immersion daycare, teachers have more time and flexibility to approach teaching from a wider variety of angles. This style is a good fit for younger learners who are naturally inquisitive and are actually able to absorb the language from all angles.

4. Involvement.
 At the organizational level, language immersion preschools tend to act as a magnet for achievement-oriented parents who like to stay involved so you can meet others who share your educational values. On the personal level, especially for full immersion preschools, parents usually feel responsible for making sure their child knows how to communicate everything in English as well, e.g. “You know circulo means circle, right?!”

5. Compassion and culture.
 Placing your children in an environment where they need to try harder to understand and be understood is a very efficient way to teach compassion. It is also impossible to learn a foreign language without learning a lot about the foreign culture that goes along with it. Cultural awareness and compassion for others with different backgrounds have always been assets but arguably never more so than in the interconnected world of today. Priceless!

Bilingual Education Can Start Preschoolers on Path to Success

More parents turning to language immersion programs to provide toddlers with academic head-start or preserve native tongue

By Lisa Intrabartola - January 17, 2012

“Hola! Como esta?” shouts 4-year-old Jackson Morton as he bounds through the front door of Yellow Brick Road preschool in Highland Park on a recent Saturday morning.
It’s graduation day for Morton and his seven classmates.   

Six weeks ago few of them could speak or understand Spanish. Today, the preschoolers – ages 1 to 5 – can follow and participate in a lesson featuring a puppet show version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears performed entirely in Spanish. They also know their numbers, colors, fruits and vegetables and how to follow basic classroom directions – after only six hours of instruction.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, more and more parents are turning to language immersion programs for their toddlers and preschoolers. Some are motivated by the desire to preserve family heritage and culture. Others see early language instruction as a way to provide their children with academic and cognitive advantages.

“For me, it’s partly trying to impart my culture,” said Alexandra Figueras-Daniel, a mother of two who is of Cuban-American descent. “There are some studies that show that [bilingual children] fair better economically because they are a little bit more marketable, so there’s definitely that side of it as well.”
Figueras-Daniel – a research project coordinator for the National Institute for Early Education Research at the Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education who is working on a doctorate in education policy – has seen firsthand the positive impact dual-language immersion programs have on preschoolers.  Early exposure to a second language enhances cognitive abilities, such as self-regulation skills. 

A growing number of parents are turning to language immersion programs for their toddlers and preschoolers. Some are looking to preserve family heritage; others for academic advantage.
“When you are speaking in English, the dial is set to English, but that doesn’t mean a Spanish station isn’t running also,” she said. “You’re making a conscious effort to block one language to communicate in the other. "

Language learning can begin as early as infancy and even in utero, as babies develop an interest in and affinity for the phonetic sounds and rhythms of the language or languages they are exposed to, studies show.  

“That period is considered the critical period where the ear is  more in tune to certain sounds. That allows them to learn language as quickly as they do,” Figueras-Daniel said. “It makes sense in pre-school is because 3- and 4-year-olds have not mastered English. They are still experimenting with grammar and the structure of language and are learning new vocabulary every day.”

A new infant-through-preschool center on Rutgers' Camden Campus offers dual and bilingual education to students soon after birth. Classes at the John S. and James L. Knight Early Learning Research Academy are taught three days a week in Spanish and two days a week in English.

Almost everything in the school is labeled in both languages. On days when Spanish is taught, everyone in the building speaks the language right down to the janitors, said Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, a Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor who developed the program.

“We have a country made of up immigrants and learning a second language is good for the global economy,’’ Bonilla- Santiago said. For children, learning two languages “is critically important for their own professional development and careers.’’

The Early Learning Research Academy was developed to prepare students before they enter kindergarten at the Leap Academy University Charter School, which seeks to break the cycle of poverty by preparing low-income minority students to attend college. It will also serve as a lab for faculty to research how quickly infants pick up language skills, Bonilla- Santiago said.

Marcela Caro wanted her sons – Kyle, 4, and 16-month-old twins Connor and Dylan – to have the early second language education her father shared with her as a preschooler in Chile.

Learning English as a young child helped broad her world. “It opened doors for me,” said Caro, who served as program coordinator for Rutgers’ Study Abroad office until January 2011. “I’m very grateful to have been exposed to another language at such an early age.”

After leaving Rutgers to become a full-time mom, Caro searched for a bilingual moms group on When she couldn’t find one, she started her own.

“My son [Kyle] was my inspiration for my whole program,” Caro said of the Somerset Spanish for Children Play and Learn Group, which she founded in March 2011. “I realized he needed to meet more children that were bilingual. Me being at home teaching him wasn’t going enough.”
After her first informal series, preschools began contacting Caro. Now she teaches Spanish at local early childhood centers including the Yellow Brick Road Preschool in Highland Park.
Caro’s class has attracted numerous Spanish-speaking moms who are married to English-speaking spouses, including Highland Park’s Carmen Herzog, who said she wants to share her native tongue with daughter Zoe, who just turned 4.

While Zoe understands Spanish, Herzog said she was reluctant to speak it until she attended Caro’s class.  “Being with other kids speaking Spanish is big motivator,” she said. “It’s more of a chore when it’s just with your mom.”

The program also appeals to non-bilingual parents, including Joan McCormick, wife of Rutgers President Richard McCormick. Their daughter Katie – who turns 2 in January – started Caro’s classes at 16 months. Now, when Caro speaks to Katie, she replies in English, demonstrating she understands what Caro is saying.

“I personally believe it’s important to know another language. I think it helps you in every aspect of your life,” said Joan McCormick, who took five years of Spanish in high school and college. “I never used it and can’t speak the language. I wish I were immersed in it much younger and that it became a way of life.”

US has more Spanish speakers than Spain

By Chris Perez - June 29, 2015

The United States now has more Spanish speakers than Spain — and the second most in the world, according to a new study.
A report published by the renowned Instituto Cervantes research center says there are now an estimated 52.6 million people in the US who can speak the worldwide romance language, which is second only to Mexico’s 121 million.
In comparison, Colombia is made up of 48 million Spanish speakers and Spain only has 46 million.
The report also found that there are now around 559 million Spanish speakers worldwide. About 470 million of those people are native speakers.
Data obtained from the US Census Office suggests that the US will have an estimated 138 million Spanish speakers by 2050 — which would make it the biggest Spanish-speaking nation on Earth.
There are currently 41 million native Spanish speakers living in the US today — and another 11.6 million people who are bilingual, many of whom are the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants, the report says.
An estimated 18.2 percent of New Yorkers can speak Spanish, according to the US Hispanic Data Gallery.
New Mexico is home to the highest population of Spanish-speakers in the country, with 47 percent. California and Texas are next in line with 38 percent, followed by Arizona (30 percent), Nevada (27.3 percent) and Florida (23.2 percent).
The lowest concentrations of Spanish-speaking Americans are located in West Virginia (1.3 percent), Maine (1.4 percent) and Vermont (1.6 percent).
The Instituto Cervantes is a worldwide organization that is devoted to the study and teaching of Spanish language and culture.