Friday, August 10, 2007

Come on, vamonos!

The Bilingual EdgeMy daughter listened to a great deal of Spanish in her first two years of life. We lived in a predominantly Spanish neighborhood in New Jersey and the child care center we chose for her was run by a Spanish-speaking family, staffed mostly by Spanish-speaking teachers and attended by Spanish-speaking children. While we didn’t select the center specifically for language learning, I always believed it was a pretty nice fringe benefit.

I didn’t realize how nice, though, until I read The Bilingual Edge by Kendall King, Ph.D., and Alison Mackey, Ph.D. (received courtesy the Parent Bloggers Network). In this thorough, persuasive book, King and Mackey spell out (as their subtitle explains) the “why, when, and how” of teaching your child a second language.

The why is pretty obvious; who would argue that knowing a second language doesn’t broaden career opportunities, or open our minds to other people and cultures? While I felt the authors went a bit overboard in justifying why they wrote the book, I found it fascinating to learn that “people with advanced knowledge of more than one language seem to be more creative….Something about knowing more than one language seems to make children both more creative and what researchers describe as more mentally flexible.”

Some of the when facts were new to me. I’ve always believed the conventional wisdom that the younger the child, the more easily she will pick up a second language. I took rudimentary French lessons as a child, and later became very proficient in the language; native speakers often commented on my excellent pronunciation. I credit my early exposure (not any innate talent) for this. King and Mackey, while agreeing that young children can learn two or three languages easily and simultaneously, also stress that it’s never too late for a child—or an adult—to learn a new language. Younger children have the advantage of discerning different sounds more easily, and they aren’t afraid to make mistakes when they talk. But older children can still become very proficient, provided they receive explicit instruction (vs. the osmosis approach you might take with a baby or toddler) and lots of encouragement.

The how chapters in the book are strongest, outlining dozens of different methods families can use to raise a bilingual child—joining a playgroup, hiring a nanny, singing songs together, language immersion schools. The authors take a stand (backed, as is everything in the book, by research studies) against teaching via “edutainment.” In other words, Dora no es buen profesor. Kids, especially the youngest ones, learn only from meaningful interactions with parents, caregivers, and other children; while they may pick up a word or two from Dora, Boots, or Elmo, real language learning requires a human touch. Interestingly, though, school-age kids do benefit from TV shows or computer games designed to teach language—as long as it’s a supplement to more hands-on instruction.

Jo’s kindergarten curriculum will include Spanish instruction, which I’m pleased about—not just because I want her to learn the language, but because it shows that her school places a value on foreign language learning. Opie will receive some Spanish lessons at our day care center starting this fall as well. It won’t be like the old days in New Jersey, but he’ll at least have some exposure. The book has convinced me, though, that if I want them to become more proficient, I’ll need to do my part at home. Simply reading books or singing songs in Spanish regularly will help, as will trying to include more Spanish in our conversations (maybe by speaking only Spanish during dinner once a week, for example). This works for me because I still remember some of my high school Spanish, but if you don’t, no te preocupes (don’t worry): King and Mackey have plenty of sage advice for you too.

What I liked: The book is comprehensive—these authors have thought of everything, from how to decide what language to teach, what to do if kids (or grandparents) resist, how to choose a tutor, and more. They cite research studies to support their claims, but don’t slip into academic jargon. They also include an appendix stuffed with helpful resources.

What I didn’t: These two needed to lay off the exclamation points. Call me a quibbler, but as a writer and editor it’s been slammed (that’s a little copy-editing in-joke for you) into my head for years that you only use an exclamation point (aka a slam) with extreme caution. The authors spent too much time in the early chapters defending their need to write the book, which only undercut their argument. And the few exercises scattered throughout seemed like little more than filler—they weren’t necessary.

Who it’s for: Any parent who wants to raise a child proficient in more than one language—and the authors make a strong case that that means any parent, period. No matter your child’s age or your family’s background or circumstances, you’ll find applicable, actionable suggestions here.


Lady M said...

I'm not surprised about the edutainment not being effective. After watching a zillion "Dora" episodes, the only phrase that sticks in my head is "Tico speaks Spanish" - the phrase immediately preceding the actual Spanish, rather than any useful words themselves.

Q is fairly comfortable in both Mandarin and English, and seems to understand there are two types of words for the same object. Now and again if he says he wants something and I hesitate (deciding whether it's a good idea), he'll translate to the other language - just in case I didn't understand. :)

Suzanne said...

Thanks for this review. There's a Spanish class for preschoolers in my area, and I've been toying with the idea of sending my kids there.

Magpie said...


This might be perilously close to edutainment, but there's a sweet website called Its alphabet/reading games are in English, Spanish or French.

Julie Pippert said...

Preaching to the choir!

My kids attended a bilingual (Spanish) school too, and had a bilingual (Spanish) childcare provider when I was at the office.

Just yesterday we read a French book.

Now I am a language-o-phile so it goes without saying that I believe in this.:)

Thanks for the review!

Ravin' Picture Maven

Damselfly said...

Slammed into your head, hee hee!

Based on where we live, I'm pretty sure my kid will pick up Spanish too. I have and never even took a class! Thanks for the review.

aimee / greeblemonkey said...

We have been teaching declan pieces of German and Spanish. But this book sounds really interesting, thanks!

ewe are here said...

Great review.

I want my boys to learn a foreign language or two as well. I encourage my MIL to speak and sing in Norwegian to my boys all she wants... although they may not pick up that particular language in any great detail, I figure recognizing other languages are out there while they're so young can only be a good thing.