Though it certainly helps to have one fluent speaker in the household, babies are adept at learning languages, and fluency can be achieved by finding a babysitter who speaks a foreign language. “You have to be with friends who speak the language,” notes Novillo who began Juguemos A Cantar, a Spanish music and playgroup as a way of immersing her son in a Spanish-speaking environment. Now that Henry attends the local public school, Novillo reinforces the language of the home with Spanish magazines and videos, and has even found Yu-Gi-Oh, the popular trading card game, in Spanish.
Another option is a dual language school. Unlike bilingual programs, which are designed to teach English to non-English speakers, children enrolled in dual language immersion programs are expected to become fluent in two languages. Typically, half the students are native English speakers and half speak the designated language with instructional time divided, usually 50-50, between the two languages. New York City has several dual language schools, including P.S. 184, the Shuang Wen School in Chinatown, a PreK-6 school where students split their day between English and Mandarin Chinese, and the Amistad Dual Language School in Inwood, a K-8 school with a progressive philosophy where children graduate bilingual in English and Spanish.
Costa-Garro points out that as bilingual children grow older, they’re likely to stop speaking their home language. “Many may come back to it,” she says. “The language of the home is the language of roots, and many realize the importance of reconnecting with culture.”
Do You Speak ‘Parentese’?
Sure it feels silly, even condescending at times, but those exaggerated tones we use to talk to babies — “whoose a bee-yoo-tee-full baybee?” — are actually good for them. A study by Carnegie Mellon researchers published in Infancy found that babies learn to talk sooner when adults speak to them in “parentese”—the singsong, expressive use of language that seems to come naturally to so many adults when they encounter a baby.
In a series of experiments led by Dr. Erik Thiessen, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Infant Language and Learning Lab, 8-month-old infants were divided into two groups and exposed to fluent speech made up of nonsense words. One group heard the speech in parentese, or baby talk, and the other was exposed to the same speech in monotone. Researchers determined that the infants exposed to parentese learned to identify words more quickly than infants who heard the same communication in monotone. “Learning a language is one of the most critical things that an infant has to do, because communication with other people is so tremendously important,” says Dr. Thiessen. “It makes a great deal of sense that the special way we have of talking to babies would help them learn.”
The study also suggests that the simple sentences and slow word delivery people use with infants may be a factor in adopting a new language, a scenario not likely to happen with adults, which may also explain why grown-ups have a hard time learning a second language.
Product won’t do it alone, but exposing children to music, books and other resources is one way to stimulate and reinforce language learning. Here are some suggestions:
• Professor Toto’s Sing and Learn Start Kit is part of a series of multi-media language kits developed by New York’s Language Workshop for Children. Geared for ages 2 and up, the French starter kit brings the foreign language playgroup home, with music CDs, scripts, illustrated storybook of the songs, a fun activity book that helps build vocabulary, and other items. The kit can be purchased as a whole or a la carte. For further information, visit www.professortoto.com.
• Berlitz Publishing recently launched Baby Berlitz, a series of talking board books with titles such as Peek-A-Boo Family for ages 3 and under. The series is available in English and a bilingual English/Spanish and retails for $8.95. For older kids, Berlitz Kids 1000 Words is a useful reference published in Spanish and French. Detailed illustrations reminiscent of Richard Scarry’s Busy Busy Town are absorbing to look at but also contain everyday items labeled in English and French or Spanish. Geared to ages 8-11, the books retail for $9.95. For further information, visit www.berlitzbooks.com.
• How do you say wedgie power in Spanish? Captain Underpants, or Las adventuras del Capitán Calzoncillos (Scholastic, $4.99), the chapter book series by Dav Pilkey about a caped crusader who fights for truth, justice and all that is pre-shrunk and cottony, is also available in Spanish. Geared to readers 6-9, the Spanish versions contain the same illustrations, which make it fairly easy for non-speakers familiar with the series to follow along. There’s also the do-it-yourself Flip-O-Rama, which is still Flip-O-Rama in any language. Scholastic also publishes many of its other popular books series, such as Clifford the Big Red Dog, in Spanish. For further information, call 1-800-SCHOLASTIC or visit www.scholastic.com.