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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.”