How many languages can a child learn at the same time?

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By Angelika Putintseva
Language Magazine

How many languages can a child learn simultaneously? WorldSpeak Language School in Los Angeles, California, has very young students learning three, four, and even five. It is a multilingual full-immersion preschool where children learn multiple languages simultaneously.

WorldSpeak School has been teaching children multiple languages for 14 years. They started the same way we all start — from the perspective of babies. The babies grew into preschoolers, and the language curriculum grew and adapted to the children’s changing needs and abilities.

Rarely does a school have the advantage of such organic, natural growth. This unique history of the school developing and growing together with its students made a big difference because every activity and technique was designed, tested, and improved through the life of the classroom.

In a way, it was the children who taught teachers what worked for them and what didn’t, and their teachers paid close attention. This natural growth gave WorldSpeak years to refine its program. Only after curriculum directors go through all the ages and stages do they understand what matters the most.

So how does multilingual immersion work?

Children learn languages faster and more easily than adults. The idea is to use this window of opportunity to the fullest and introduce two, three, four, or five languages. A “one teacher — one language” approach creates a full-immersion atmosphere and helps children to separate between the languages and easily avoid confusion. The daily schedule is divided into morning and afternoon periods to help separate the learning process into different language blocks.

Sophia and Bella Li, four- and two-years-old, both enjoy Chinese storytime and love doing crafts in Spanish class. In the morning, when Daddy brings them to school, they say, “Zai jian, Baba, wo ai ni, Baba.” At the end of the day, they say goodbye to their Spanish teacher, “Hasta mañana, Maestra, te quiero mucho.”

Vienna, a three-and-a-half-year-old, says, “Qing gei wo niu nai,” to her Chinese teacher during the morning snack time. At lunch, she may ask her Spanish teacher, “Maestra, me das mas brocoli y pollo, por favor.”

WorldSpeak is a full-immersion preschool where parents can choose to enroll their children into one, two, three, or four language tracks, and their schedules will be designed accordingly. For example, little Madeleine may spend three mornings in Chinese class, two mornings in the French room, and all five afternoons in Spanish.

Since most children are taking multiple languages, she will most likely be with the same friends throughout the week. Children speak English to each other and outside of home and school. As her home language is Korean, little Madeleine is learning five languages simultaneously.

The majority of children at the school are learning three or four languages. Children are natural learners and new language comes easily to them if it is picked up in a happy, non-competitive environment.

Parents say it works like magic. When they see their three-year-old speaking a language they don’t know, they are surprised and excited. “I never realized how much Spanish Sophie knew until we went to Mexico on vacation and she had a whole conversation with our waiter at the restaurant. My wife and I were beyond surprised!” said Keo Thongkham, father of four-year-old Sophie, who at the time was learning Spanish, Chinese, and French.

This multilingual success is based upon a methodology with three cornerstones:

First, it is full immersion, based on age-attractive activities. Attractive is a key word in the teaching philosophy. It is the teachers’ secret weapon and the main thing they need to keep in mind. Every activity the teacher offers has to be attractive to a child. It is rule number one for keeping children’s focus and attention.

The second cornerstone is age-appropriate curriculum. It should not be too easy, because children will lose interest, but cannot be too hard, because they will give up if the activity is beyond their abilities.

When the teacher has the right curriculum, the class runs smoothly. Walking through the school during classes, one sees a lot of play and music in toddler rooms. Three-year-olds love painting and Play-Doh. There’s an increased amount of story time in the four-to-five-year-old classroom, but there is still plenty of arts and crafts. It is quite simple when one thinks about it, but the secret is in balancing all the elements and creating the energy of fun and happiness.

The third cornerstone of the WorldSpeak method is its socio-emotional element. Growing slowly and organically, the school had enough time to discover by observing children what really matters to them. Friendship and social interaction are hugely important for little ones.

They come to school to play with friends; they come to see each other, to be together. The value of play and friendship cannot be overestimated. This approach can be used in language classes for children of all ages and even with adults.

If a child has a friend in language class, that child will be more likely to enjoy the class and experience better learning. If activities and language games promote interaction with other students, bring out personal ideas, and let people get to know each other — students are more likely enjoy class and learn better as well. It is true for any age.

It has been the case for centuries of educational history that teachers sometimes overestimate the power of drills, repetitions, and tests, while underestimating the power of emotional connections and relationships.

Everyone likes to be part of the group, share experiences, and enjoy friends. The success of Twitter and Facebook is a great lesson for language teachers on the importance of social connection. Bringing this understanding into language classes increases productivity and turns students into attentive and engaged participants. Being part of the team, learning about yourself and your friends, and playing through learning the language are the experiences students will remember.

As First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said, “We learn by living.” School is a major social-emotional experience. Aside from a good curriculum, the energy of the class, laughter, jokes, connections, and emotions are the most powerful boosters. These energy boosters make the learning process more effective than any other technique.

It is through the social-emotional experience of the class that learning becomes living. School that feels good will always be productive and efficient. When children are happy and engaged, they can learn multiple languages simultaneously and successfully.

A goal as ambitious as teaching multiple languages simultaneously requires a well-designed curriculum and a sensitive approach to all aspects of school life. Teachers need the resources to help them. Full immersion is a big bonus. A well-thought-out curriculum is a great help. Group dynamics and a feeling of belonging are also key. And together, they work like magic.

The teacher taps into the social-emotional pool and brings out the power of connection and interaction. Any teacher who masters the ability to direct this social energy into the fabric of a language class will acquire the strongest teaching tool to engage students.

At WorldSpeak, we prefer group games to individual activities because they enrich children’s social-emotional experiences. Teachers are trained to use the energy of the group and direct it into language learning. Group language games transform the traditional class format into a place for making emotional connections, reinforcing friendships, and exploring social dynamics. These are the stepping stones that lead children to multilingualism.

After 14 years of experience teaching preschoolers, elementary school classes are the next step for WorldSpeak, which is now extending its multilingual immersion into a K-5 program. The program is starting with kindergarten class and will naturally extend into higher grades as pupils move up each year.

Until a few years ago, there were only a few dual-immersion elementary schools in Los Angeles. WorldSpeak is taking the dual-immersion approach a step further by introducing a multilingual immersion system. It is experimental and ambitious.

The program offers elementary education in two foreign languages and English. There is even an optional extracurricular afterschool class in a third foreign language.

Two factors make this ambitious plan possible: small class sizes of twelve children and their previous multilingual experience — children graduate into elementary school from WorldSpeak preschool, where they were already learning languages and have acquired a good level of proficiency.

In a way, the WorldSpeak story is practical justification for the academic research done in many language labs around the world. It offers a practical example of children successfully learning multiple languages simultaneously.

Angelika Putintseva is a founder of WorldSpeak Language Schools — a network of schools for early learners of languages. She received an MA in teaching foreign languages from SUNY Stony Brook and an MA in journalism from MGU, Moscow. After teaching at the Specialized Language Training Center for American Journalists and Diplomats, Washington, DC, she opened Baby-Genius School in 2000 and then WorldSpeak Language Schools in Los Angeles, CA, teaching up to 19 languages.

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