Bilingual Babies -- a Sign of the Times


Jan. 30, 2007— -- Think playtime, but with a purpose.

From California to Connecticut, toddlers sit on the laps of their parents or caretakers and are spoken to in Italian, French, Spanish and, increasingly, Chinese.

They sit in circles, distracted by cuddly toys, at schools such as the Language Workshop for Children in New York or informal groups organized by parents.

For mom Karen Albright, having her 2-year-old daughter, Carolyn, attend French and Chinese classes seems natural. Carolyn "already speaks Spanish and English, because her baby sitter speaks Spanish," says Albright.

Encouraging a caregiver to speak in his or her native language to the baby makes sense to parents like Raj and Mamta Purohit of New Jersey. In the long run, they believe their daughter Anaka's exposure to native and grammatically correct Chinese is better for her than exposure to sometimes broken English. The Purohits see it as turning a possible liability into a bonus.

Mandarin (the dominant form of Chinese in the world) is not an easy language to pick up. The Foreign Service Institute ranks it about four times as time-intensive to learn as French, but these babies (many as young as 6-months old) are getting a head start. And if the success of the courses at the Language Workshop for Children and the rise in advanced placement language courses at high schools around the country are any indication, the popularity is surging.

Susan and Jason Krause want to give their son, Gavin, every advantage. Jason Krause manages real estate assets in China, and beyond the possibility of preparing his toddler to take over the family business one day, he also believes that teaching his son other languages is crucial for Gavin's overall development as a global citizen.

"I think it's important to show others in the world that we're not so U.S.-centric," explains Gavin's father. "Everyone should speak English, but we're going to make an attempt to speak their language as well. It helps culturally when you're doing business or in social engagements, just to learn what other people are about."

Parents are also learning more about the developmental window in which children can most readily absorb new languages. For the first 6 months of life, for example, babies can hear every sound from every language in the world.

According to Ann Senghas at Barnard's Language Acquisition and Development Research Lab at Columbia University, between month 6 and month 10, our brains actually begin to prune away sounds that we are not exposed to frequently.

There have been several studies that have, in one way or another, found advantages in starting children off in a new language at a young age. Researchers don't know whether it is biological or social, but most children who learn a language before puberty seem to develop the ability to speak it as a native would.

Francois Thibaud, who runs the Language Workshop for Children, has created a line of linguistic software for young children. He says the method works better when the babies are preverbal. "Understanding comes long before speaking, and speaking before reading and writing," he says. "That's the way you learn your own language."

There are no translators in any of Thibaud's classes, because he says when we translate for children we actually add confusion; for clarity we should keep using the word we want them to learn.

Some parents fear that with all these different words and languages, their children will have a harder time picking up English or will get confused, but researchers at Dartmouth College and other institutions have found no such disadvantage to being multilingual. There are emerging theories that the brain is designed to pick up multiple languages early in life, and that our current monolingual focus is actually an evolutionary aberration.

Allesandra is a teenager who started studying languages a the Language Workshop for Children before she can remember. She speaks fluent French, Spanish, Italian and English, and is working on Chinese, Portuguese and Latin … and she hasn't even set foot in a high school yet.

A well-rounded and articulate young woman, Allesandra recognizes the advantages that multiple languages will afford her, and still wants to pick up Hindi (the national language of India) by the time she enters college.

"When I am older, I want to have an international job in something that has to do with health care or medicine … because I really like science too," she says. "So, I think that by knowing Hindi and Chinese, I could work in parts of the world that need a lot of help."

Allesandra's interest and excellence in math and science is not an unusual byproduct for children who are fluent in multiple languages. Research has indicated that multilingual students do as well, if not better, on standardized tests in high school than their monolingual peers.

To understand why, think of an apple, and then think of the word "apple." If you speak only one language, you associate the object (the apple) with that word, and only that word. But, for example, if you know three languages and three words for "apple," the words become more like symbols to you, similar to the symbol "x" in an algebraic equation.

There is also a theory among some Indian computer programmers that the reason so many Chinese and Indians have an easy time learning programming languages is because their brains are already open to the idea of learning languages. Many college graduates in India are familiar with two languages, if not three of four. And the Chinese are familiar with the nuances of Mandarin or Cantonese. It seems logical that when either group picks up a code book to learn JAVA or C++, it's just another language.

Perhaps so many engineers and computer scientists are involved in software breakthroughs because they've become fluent with symbols the way a poet has with words.

And perhaps some future poets of symbols and words are getting a head start as bilingual babies.

Melia Patria contributed to this story.

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