Learning a Second Language

The Benefits of Starting at a Young Age

A quick scan of the ‘What the Research Shows ’ pages of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages’ (ACTFL) website reveals study after study after study, dating from the early 70s through to the 00s, demonstrating not only the academic benefits to children of learning a second language, but also the cognitive and even attitudinal benefits. 

The ACTFL (an organization founded in 1967 that’s “dedicated to the improvement and expansion of the teaching and learning of all languages at all levels of instruction”) draws the following conclusions from the cited research:

  • Language learning correlates with higher academic achievement on standardized test measures.
  • There is evidence that early language learning improves cognitive abilities.
  • Research suggests that language learners develop a more positive attitude toward the target language and/or the speakers of that language. 

So, it seems, if we want our children to do better academically, be better thinkers, and be more tolerant, global citizens, a great step forward is to teach them a second language.

Luckily for parents of Inly students, none of this comes as any surprise to Jenny Driscoll who heads up the school’s World Languages program.

“Learning a language requires incredible attention and focus. The ear develops. The brain gets totally rewired. It’s really amazing,” says Jenny, who holds a M.A in international education from the Universidad de Alcala in Spain. 

A group of Middle School students make an exercise video using their Spanish vocabulary.

And, Inly’s Assistant Head of School, Julie Kelly-Detwiler, agrees, “We know that starting a second language as early as possible is best for brain development in children. There is a direct correlation between language learning and the learning done for math and music. Approaching language in the right way sets our children up for success in all other areas.” 

“At Inly, we teach a second language like a first language. There’s no grammar or vocabulary taught in isolation. We use our bodies, we speak, we move. If you move while you learn, you embed the learning deeply,” she adds.

Currently, all Inly students — Toddler House through Middle School — participate in Spanish classes and Mandarin Chinese is offered to Kindergarten students as well as participants in Inly’s After-School Program and Preschool Enrichment Program.

Language Through the Ages

For Inly toddlers, listening is key. “We focus on introducing sounds at this age. There is no wall between listening and learning. Children’s brains at this age are literally sponges,” explains Jenny. “We have a window – from age 0 to age 10 – where children have no inhibition. We have to capitalize on this incredible time for learning in whatever way we can.”

“It’s really wonderful,” agrees Marisol Martinez, Spanish Instructor (TH/CH/LE & Discovery). “There is no fear of learning. The children repeat everything. We use songs and games to engage them. They learn through their hands, their ears, and their feet. We connect all their senses.”

Then, she explains, “As we move into Children’s House, we start to expose them to written language. We start working with letters.”

Lower Elementary students are taught to connect sound with reading and writing, “but we’re still having fun with it,” Jenny remarks.

By Middle School, Jenny aims to have students comfortable with learning a new language. She wants the experience to be enjoyable and natural, not stressful. “We practice through games. We make it fun. We are teaching our students the skills they need to learn any language,” she says.

No surprise that as the students mature, so too does the context in which they learn. “In Middle School, we have to work harder to show students how this language ties into their world. For example, we tie it back to the global community. We talk about how it’s a privilege to choose to learn a second language. We read current event articles in Spanish. Students make up their own songs. We work to keep it relevant.”

And while, as Shannon Hsu, Children’s House and Discovery Chinese Instructor explains, “Chinese is a totally different animal; the sounds are different; the muscle movement required to make those sounds is different; the written language is totally different,” the principles behind the education are the same. 

Children’s House students perform the dragon dance in celebration of Chinese New Year.

“We teach Chinese the way we teach natives their mother tongue. We make it fun to learn and make associations to daily life. We use materials so they can visualize. We use sounds, objects, and movement. We foster their passion. The kids in one of my classes were desperate to learn how to say ‘Spiderman’ in Chinese. In another class ‘bubbles’ was in high demand, so that’s what we worked with.”

Shannon continues, “We are creating a bridge between English, Spanish and Chinese. We are expanding the world for our students with these three associations. One item, say, a pen, but three words, three sounds. These connections require so many formulas, so much thinking behind the scenes. Just another reason why parents should be amazed at how smart their children are!” 

Overall, explains Julie, “We want learning a language to be a passion for our students. It brings them face-to-face with a new world, with a new culture. Your mouth moves differently; the sounds are different; your vocabulary expands. Learning a language asks you to shift gears and every time you ask that of a child, you expand their world.”

The World Language program at Inly School includes Spanish at all grade levels: Toddler, Preschool, Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary and Middle School. To learn more, visit www.inlyschool.org/world-languages.

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