A head start on Spanish
Preschoolers are the perfect age for immersion, says Mary Amanda Stewart
There’s a new trend in preschool education: English-speaking families are choosing Spanish immersion for their children.
I’m a professor of bilingual education. I study how we learn second languages, and I’m a bilingual who acquired Spanish as a second language as a young adult. I am also a mother who has chosen to educate both of my children in a local Spanish immersion preschool, although Spanish is not in our cultural heritage. My son spent three years before kindergarten in Caminito Spanish Immersion and Montessori Preschool in Keller, one of 14 Spanish immersion preschools in the area. Now, my 3-year-old daughter attends. As a professor and a mother, I’ve noted the benefits of receiving an early childhood education in another language, such as Spanish, are great.
Children who attend an early childhood educational environment in another language are not learning Spanish; they are learning in Spanish. Think about how many people you know who have tried and failed to learn a second language either in classes or through Rosetta Stone. Research in the science behind second-language acquisition illustrates there is a difference in learning a language and acquiring a language.
We all acquired our first language without much effort. Young children can also acquire a second language quite seamlessly if they view the goal as learning about community helpers, seasons or farm animals. They are using language to learn those concepts. The language can just as easily be Spanish as English.
And there are certain benefits to being exposed to multiple languages early on. As we age, our brain loses plasticity and we are often not as open to new ideas. Young children are moldable. They have not yet established a firm language identity and are usually fine with learning about farm animals in Spanish rather than English. They also take more risks and are not as afraid to make mistakes. Since you need to use a language in order to gain proficiency in it, they benefit from trying out their new phrases whereas the overly self-conscious adult is at a loss.
Lastly, preschool, specifically in Spanish, makes sense for early literacy development. Spanish has a shallow orthography, whereas English has a much deeper orthography. This means the letters in Spanish usually make the same sound, whereas English has numbers of exceptions. For example, think of the long E sound in English as written in these words: deep, read, achieve, Pete, receive. And what about all of those silent Es? Spanish is not nearly as puzzling for young children learning to make the letter-sound correspondence.
For example, my 3-year-old daughter drew a picture of a rainbow last week and wanted to write the word. There is no way she is ready to sound that out in English, although it is her dominant language. However, she was able to write the word in Spanish when I helped her hear each sound of “arco iris,” the word for rainbow in Spanish she’s becoming familiar with. Spanish is a much more accessible language for her as an emergent writer. And the literacy skills learned in Spanish will transfer to English.
So why not choose Spanish immersion for your child’s early education and continue in one of our public schools’ bilingual or dual-language programs? Parents need to weigh all the factors in making these decisions for their children. They should be sure their decisions are based on solid research and not uneducated fears.
Mary Amanda (Mandy) Stewart is an assistant professor of Bilingual and English as a Second Lan- guage Education at Texas Woman’s University. She can be reached online through her website, http://maryamandastewart.com.