A head start on Span­ish

Preschool­ers are the per­fect age for im­mer­sion, says Mary Amanda Ste­wart

The Dallas Morning News - - VIEWPOINTS/LOCAL VOICES -

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 Lan­guage Ed­u­ca­tion at Texas Woman’s Univer­sity. She can be reached on­line through her web­site, http://marya­man­dastew­art.com.

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