Parents Begin Spanish Lessons with Toddlers

Companies and educators are cashing in on a wave of interest among some parents to teach their children Spanish. The trend sometimes involves very young children who are just beginning to learn English. Research suggests this is an ideal time for kids to pick up a second language.

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As soon as their kids get just a tiny bit older, many parents will try to teach them a second language. Fewer than 10 percent of Americans can fluently speak a language other than English. To change that, some with very young children hope to take advantage of what brain researchers say is an ideal and fleeting stage of development for learning a second language.

NPR's Alex Markels reports on the bilingual teaching aids that they are buying.

(Soundbite of children singing)

ALEX MARKELS reporting:

Three-year-old Sarah Weich(ph) is just learning her first songs. But when she sings her favorite about baby chicks, she does it in two languages.

(Soundbite of children singing)

Sarah's parents both took high school Spanish, but they can barely navigate a menu in the language. So they hired a nanny from El Salvador and enrolled Sarah in Toddler Tiempo, a popular weekly class at a Washington area community center.

Ms. LOUISA SHEPARD (Founder and Teacher, Toddler Tiempo): I started with one class. I'm now teaching five a week. And there's always a waiting list.

MARKELS: Louisa Shepard created the class two years ago. She limits enrollment to children 18-months and older, although moms often bring their infants anyway.

Ms. SHEPARD: Oh, I don't think it's ever too early. The only reason I put the 18-months is that we have Play-Doh. I don't want them to eat the Play Doh.

MARKELS: Jill Chan(ph) signed up her two-year-old son Kelan(ph) as soon as she could.

Ms. JILL CHAN: At this age, little kids are sponges. And I thought this was a great time to expose him so that that whole absorbing mind can just take it in. And he's ready for when he goes to school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARKELS: In fact, some brain researchers say kids who learn a second language early on may have a leg up on those who learn only English.

Professor LAURA-ANN PETITO (Neuropsychology, Dartmouth College): They're smarter.

MARKELS: Laura-Ann Petito studies language acquisition at Dartmouth's Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory.

Prof. PETITO: The joke in my laboratory is you definitely want a bilingual running your local air traffic control tower, because there is a cognitive advantage that, for example, multi-tasking and switching between different types of knowledge.

MARKELS: Such findings have spurred demand for a growing glut of bilingual products, from books of nursery rhymes to baby Berlitz lessons for newborns.

(Soundbite of Dora the Explorer show, speaking foreign language)

MARKELS: At the top of the merchandizing heap is a doe-eyed Latina girl and her pet monkey.

(Soundbite of Dora the Explorer show)

Unidentified Children: (Singing) Dora, Dora, Dora the Explorer. Dora!

MARKELS: The biggest kid's shows on TV, Nickelodeon's Dora the Explorer and its spin-off, Go Diego, Go, now outsell even the Barbie doll franchise.

The Dora show only uses a handful of Spanish words in each episode, but Dora co-creator Brown Johnson says it emphasizes action words and repeats them in hopes kids incorporate them into their everyday chatter.

Ms. BROWN JOHNSON (Co-creator, Dora the Explorer): When the parent and child are going out to the grocery store the kid will say, Vamos, Mama! and that's kind of flooring for, say, a kid somewhere where there may not be a lot of Latino influence.

MARKELS: Of course, peppering a TV show with a few Spanish words isn't a substitute for real learning, and some warn that teaching tools that use both English and Spanish words to explain meanings can actually hamper learning.

Ms. NANCY RHODES (Director, Language Education at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington): If a child is learning Spanish, you don't need to give them the English.

MARKELS: Nancy Rhodes heads Foreign Language Education at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington. She points to interactive books that sound out, for example, the Spanish word vaca for cow, then offer the English equivalent.

Ms. RHODES: The kids don't need that. It's really just for the adults. The kids should push the picture of the cow and hear vaca, and that's it.

MARKELS: Of course, there's no substitute for immersing young children in a second language, programs that typically take three years to achieve fluency. Take the Spanish for Toddlers pre-school program in Detroit, which is taught entirely in Spanish by a native speaker.

Parent Alyssa Hopper(ph) says she couldn't imagine putting off formal lessons for her four-year-old daughter, Eleanor(ph).

Ms. ALYSSA HOPPER: We're teaching our kids beginning language at the high school level. It's almost a lost battle.

MARKELS: That's exactly what motivated Louisa Shepard to start her Toddler Tiempo class in Washington, D.C.

Ms. SHEPARD: I learned Spanish at 35 years old, and it was a painful experience. And I will always have an accent, and I hope that my boys don't have to do that. Especially in this country, where there are so many Spanish speaking people. It's part of our world now.

MARKELS: It's certainly part of four-year-old Max Hutchins'(ph) world.

Ms. SHEPARD: What words do you know in Spanish?

Mr. MAX HUTCHINS (Student at Toddler Tiempo): Um, hasta luego.

Ms. SHEPARD: What does hasta luego mean?

Mr. HUTCHINS: Um, goodbye.

MARKELS: In Washington, this is Alex Markels, NPR News.

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