Faced with a myriad of choices, selecting the right preschool for your child can be quite a daunting task. For many parents, one additional consideration is whether to choose a bilingual learning environment.
There is no question that knowing more than one language is an advantage in today’s globalized world. Bilingualism has also been linked to many cognitive advantages. Bilingual children are better able to multitask and problem solve. They also perform better in school and tend to score higher on standardized tests.
In fact, according to Canadian neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok, neuroimaging technology reveals that the brains of bilingual individuals are connected differently than those of monolingual individuals. When solving problems, for example, bilingual individuals use different parts of their brains than monolingual individuals.
Besides building brainpower, learning other languages can promote cross-cultural understanding and openness to people who are different. Children learn to embrace other people and cultures through firsthand experience. They develop a sense of being a citizen of a global community.
Although many Silicon Valley families are fortunate to be able to expose their children to more than one language at home, others seek opportunities to help their children learn a second language. Choosing a bilingual education is one option. Parents often have many questions as they make this significant decision. Let’s consider a few.
What’s the best age for my child to begin learning another language?
Research indicates the earlier, the better. From birth, infants are primed to learn language. But children’s brains become hardwired as they grow, so the ability to hear and produce the sounds of a second language begins to drop off as children get older. Some research indicates the drop-off in ability could happen somewhere between age 7 and adolescence, but research from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences indicates it could begin as early as the first year of life.According to Jasmine Siu, who teaches 2-year-olds in Yew Chung International School’s Mandarin-English preschool program, an additional benefit of starting young is that “children absorb the second language without any predispositions. They’re not embarrassed about trying new words because they’re not self-conscious yet. They learn so quickly.” Young children learn a second language in the same way they learn the first: They listen, understand and then verbalize — all at their own pace.
Some bilingual parents want their children to learn their heritage language in order to balance the dominance of English in their children’s lives. Other parents choose programs that teach a language they feel will be useful to their children in the future. In the U.S., Spanish is the most common language offered by bilingual schools, and Mandarin has quickly become popular with the rise of China as a global economic power. In Silicon Valley, there are bilingual preschools that offer Mandarin, Spanish, French and German. If you want to make a long-term commitment to bilingual education for your children, you can also find local elementary and middle school bilingual programs.
Are there different kinds of bilingual programs?
In the U.S., the term “bilingual education” traditionally has been associated with public elementary school programs in which children are taught in their native language (usually Spanish) and gradually transitioned through the years to learn more and more English. Today, however, the term more often refers to programs that allow speakers of any language to learn another and become bilingual. Consequently, you will now find schools offering language instruction on a spectrum from full immersion (the entire day is taught in a language other than English) to second-language classes several times a week.
Because immersion is the best way to learn a language, most bilingual preschools offer some sort of immersion experience. This can take the form of nearly full immersion in which children learn all subjects in the target language for the majority of the day with some lessons in English built into the curriculum. There are also dual-language programs in which children learn in both languages for equal amounts of time. For example, Yew Chung International School uses a co-teaching model in preschool with one Chinese-speaking teacher and one English-speaking teacher using their respective languages 100 percent of the time.
The keys to finding a great preschool for your child are independent of its bilingual offerings. First and foremost, you want to ensure there is a caring, nurturing learning environment in which your child will be happy and safe and enjoy learning.
For a bilingual preschool, also consider how teachers teach in the second language. Are the teachers native speakers? Are songs, games, stories and role playing part of the curriculum? Do teachers use body language, gestures, repetition and plenty of loving encouragement? Do children learn through all five senses? Learning should be joyful and engaging no matter what language it’s in!
As you consider your preschool decision, think about how your child learns and the type of learning environment in which your child will thrive. Also consider your longer-term educational goals for your child. Would you like your child to continue in a bilingual school after preschool? Gather information, visit schools and talk to other parents about their experiences. And then, follow your heart.
 “Why, How and When Should My Child Learn a Second Language,” Center for Applied Linguistics, http://www.cal.org/resources/pubs/whyhowwhen_brochure.pdf
 Dreyfus, Claudia, “The Bilingual Advantage,” The New York Times, May 30, 2011. (Interview with Dr. Ellen Bialystok); http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/31/science/31conversation.html?_r=3&partner=rss&emc=rss
 Klass, Perry, “Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language”, The New York Times, October 10, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/11/health/views/11klass.html?_r=1
The Center for Applied Linguistics offers a wide range of resources for professionals and others interested in all aspects of language and culture.
Discover Languages is a national campaign of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages to raise awareness about the benefits of language learning. There are many research-based resources available.
InCultureParent: A Magazine for Parents Raising Little Global Citizens offers articles, blogs, crafts, recipes and other resources for parents interested in multicultural perspectives and activities for their children.
Research by Dr. Ellen Bialystok and colleagues of York University’s Cognitive Development Laboratory
A lecture on the linguistic genius of babies by Dr. Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences
Jennifer Chapa is an administrator at the Yew Chung International School – Silicon Valley in Mountain View and the mother of two boys learning Mandarin. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.