Confident, curious and culturally aware

Children’s brains are wired to easily learn a number of languages simultaneously. The benefits include increased mental ability, more self-confidence, enhanced cultural understanding and better life chances. Steve Bird interviewed two British mothers about the advantages to their children of Spanish early years education, and two native Spanish teachers who work in the UK to find out how early language learning helped them.

Sasha McClinton’s son Joseph is in pre-school bilingual education
Why did you choose a bilingual nursery?
We are aware of the benefits of learning a second language. The most important time to learn is between 0 and 18 months, and it’s easier for them to acquire a second language at that time, which will benefit them throughout their life. It also stimulates the brain and improves IQ and gets them involved with a different culture. We don’t speak any other languages ourselves so we can’t offer it to our children.

What impact is the experience having on Joseph?
Being immersed in Spanish for 30 hours each week means he’s at the same stage as children who have a Spanish speaking parent at home. He speaks Spanish and English and seems to realise that he’s able to recognise a different context. He can follow instructions in Spanish and subconsciously he’s becoming bilingual.

What are the benefits?
The experience is making Joseph very confident and happy. It’s enriching his life, and I like to think it will help him learn other languages easily and give him better prospects. Lots of our friends went on to study French or German but wouldn’t consider themselves to be fluent. You can get to a level and be successful but it’s not the same as learning from a young age.

Lucia Farres is from Spain and works in a bilingual nursery
For three hours every Friday between the ages of 8 and 18, Lucia Farres attended language school where she was taught English by native English tutors. Six years ago, after finishing her degree, she took the opportunity to travel to England with a friend and has never looked back.

As well as making her feel confident about meeting new people, her ability to speak English fluently set her apart from many of her peers. “I had to rent a flat, find a job and go to interviews, so it would have been really difficult if I couldn’t speak English.”

Being fluent also gave her the idea to set up language exchange parties to help other non-English speakers meet people from different cultures, make friends, develop their language skills and find work. “It’s a good feeling to know I’ve helped people improve their lives. It also helped boost my confidence and get a better job, so I’m very happy.”

Felicity Cassin’s son George is in pre-school bilingual education
Why did you choose a bilingual nursery?
We looked into Spanish because we wanted to give George the advantage of speaking another language. When they’re small it’s easier to pick up, and it’s good to communicate in another language and be exposed to different cultures. It will give him so many opportunities to travel, work and make friends, and will also make learning other languages more easy.

What impact is the experience having on George?
When he counts and speaks in Spanish he gets positive reinforcement and praise. We went to Tenerife recently and he would say hello to the locals and they really like it. It gets a positive reaction. It doesn’t faze him that he doesn’t understand everything, but he doesn’t understand everything in English so it doesn’t matter.

What are the benefits?
It’s really good for his confidence. It’s an advantage to speak another language and really enjoyable too.

Steve Bird’s nineteen-month-old daughter is in bilingual childcare and she loves it.

This article will appear in ABC Magazine in March 2013.