More children learn more than one language
1/10/2007 8:06 AM ET
By Beth Walton, USA TODAY
Azure Warrenfeltz is fluent in Japanese and Spanish. She also can understand bits of French, German, Arabic and Italian, and she soon hopes to learn some Mandarin Chinese.
Azure is 4 years old.
"I'm smarter than my father. He can only speak one language. Muchas gracias!" she says playfully.
In today's globalized world, Azure is one of many young American children whose parents insist her education include foreign languages.
"It's such a global environment now, you never know what you might need," says Azure's mother, Julie Warrenfeltz, who started schooling her daughter in foreign languages when she was 6 weeks old. "I wanted to make sure she had every tool and every benefit at her disposal.
"She couldn't hold a violin, she couldn't stand upright, but I wanted her to do something," says Warrenfeltz, owner of Petite Ambassadors Language School in Jacksonville.
Not only is learning a foreign language easier for children than it is for adults, but children who are exposed to other languages also do better in school, score higher on standardized tests, are better problem solvers and are more open to diversity, says François Thibaut, who runs The Language Workshop for Children, which has nine schools around the East Coast. Thibaut is a pioneer in foreign languages for babies and children and is the author of Professor Toto, an award-winning home-based foreign-language curriculum for parents and children.
"When I started 35 years ago, very few people believed in this idea. Teaching kids who are 6 months seemed crazy," Thibaut says.
Today, Thibaut says, his schools can't keep up with the demand for classes; about 1,000 students are enrolled and even more are on waiting lists. The schools even get requests from expectant parents wanting to reserve a space for when their child is born, he says.
The schools serve students 6 months to 9 years old and offer courses in Spanish, French, Italian and, new this year, Chinese, which Thibaut says is becoming the most requested class.
"More and more people are aware of the importance of teaching another language to their child because we are in a global world," he says.
Language study for children is based on immersion, he says. Kids sing songs and play games to help develop language comprehension skills. "This is a natural way of learning language."
When children start learning languages at birth, they have the capacity to learn many languages at once without getting confused — because, as the brain develops, so too does the ability to separate one language from another.
Warrenfeltz says that sometimes when Azure was younger, she would mix up vocabulary words, using the shortest word no matter what the language. But by age 3, everything fell into place.
The word for "elephant" was too long and hard to pronounce in English, so at age 2, Azure would just say Zo, the Japanese word for the animal.
"It was clear to her what the objects were, but it was just so hard to enunciate, she would just pick the words that were the easiest," Warrenfeltz says.
Warrenfeltz's school takes students as young as 6 weeks in a course called Baby Boot Camp, which combines foreign language with strength training, balance and coordination exercises. She, too, has seen the demand for language classes grow in the past few years.
One of the reasons Anna Lynn and Stephan Oppenheimer of New York enrolled their daughter, Mireille, in Thibaut's language classes when she was 6 months old was to help her understand diversity and learn how to see things from different perspectives. They also hoped the language lessons would help their daughter appreciate her heritage; her grandmother is French.
"We both believe that could be a great gift to give our child," Anna Lynn says. "As Americans, we don't typically study other languages, and that can make us narrower in our perspective."
Warrenfeltz's two younger children, Indigo, 2, and Raymond, 1, also are learning foreign languages.
"It's amazing; you never know what is going to come out of their mouths," she says. "You'll see them walking down the road counting in Chinese or pointing to things in Arabic.
"I would hope that they would become ambassadors to Japan and all those wonderful things," but whatever Azure decides to do, languages will be an asset, Warrenfeltz says. "I'm just providing an opportunity so they can do whatever they want, wherever they want. They won't be bound by language."