Spanish Immersion

  • When it comes to language, there’s no substitute for an early start.

    — Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, neuroscientists

    Immersion in another language is one of the greatest gifts you can give a preschooler: in such an environment, preschoolers can learn a second language effortlessly, fluently and with an impeccable accent. As well as better employment prospects (and an easy GCSE or A level), studies have shown huge cognitive and emotional advantages for bilingual children, such as greater academic success and improved empathy.

    Immersion is the quickest and most effective way to achieve fluency in a minority language. The children’s first language will be the language spoken at home. Read more about the Spanish immersion programme and the benefits of childhood bilingualism below.

  • What is Spanish immersion?

    Here’s an official definition from the Centre for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition: “In foreign language immersion programs, the regular school curriculum is taught in the immersion language for at least half of the school day.”

    At Bonitots, the majority of resources will be in Spanish and the main language used will be Spanish. Some notable exceptions are as follows:

    • pre schoolers (3+) will start the school transition programme which will involve English language to ensure they are school ready*;
    • most outings and activities will be to English-speaking destinations and / or spent with monolingual children;
    • English-speaking children that join the setting will be eased into the immersion programme gradually.

    *We may suggest implementing a more rigorous school preparation programme for children going into reception where the home language is not English.

    Why Spanish immersion?

    Simply put, immersion is the most effective way to achieve bilingualism. Childhood bilingualism has been proven, in many studies, to confer a number of cognitive and emotional advantages. It also improves job prospects, travel opportunities – and provides an easy GCSE or A level!

    What are the benefits of childhood bilingualism?

    Aside from the benefits in terms of later employment prospects, studies have shown huge cognitive and emotional benefits for bilingual children, from superior reading and writing skills in both languages to a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In Welcome to your Child’s Brain, two neuroscientists, Sarah Aamodt and Sam Wang explore the many benefits of early introduction to another language.

    Early exposure = easier language acquisition
    Young children are primed to learn languages. It’s easy for them. Aamodt and Wang go as far as to say that it is “absurd” to wait until secondary school to introduce a foreign language: “by adolescence, students must work much harder to learn a new language, and most of them will never master it completely. If you want your child to speak another language fluently, by far the best approach is to start early in life.” Their advice is: “take advantage of young children’s superior language learning abilities by beginning instruction at primary school or earlier. When it comes to language, there’s no substitute for an early start.”

    Cognitive benefits
    Studies show that bilingual children, on average do better at school than monolingual children. This seems to be because childhood bilingualism changes – indeed, enhances – the brain. This enhancement makes part of the brain slightly bigger – a region of the left interior parietal cortex is “larger in people who speak more than one language, and it is largest in those who learned the second language when they were young or speak it fluently.” (Aamodt and Wang)

    Professor Ellen Bialystok, of York University in Toronto, has shown that bilingual children exhibit improved skills related to the brain’s “executive functioning” – such as learning different ways to solve logic problems or handle multi-tasking. This improved executive functioning is seen as early as seven months of age and by the time they are two, bilinguals perform better in the Stroop task, a standard test of executive function.

    Executive function is the collective name for skills including effortful control (the ability to intentionally control behaviour and impulses, and to plan actions), working memory (the ability to remember information relevant to a task for a short period) and cognitive flexibility (the ability to seek another way to achieve an aim if the first approach fails, and to modify behaviour to suit a situation). Executive functioning skills are, according to research, a better predictor of academic success than IQ.

    Neuroscientists are only just beginning to understand why bilingualism has such an impact on brain function. One finding is that bilingual children may use additional brain areas for cognitive control. In Welcome to Your Child’s Brain, Wang and Aamodt explain that when tested on their ability to resolve differences between two conflicting sources of information, “bilingual children’s brains show activation not just in the portion of the prefrontal cortex that everyone uses for conflict resolution, but also in Broca’s area, the speech region that processes grammatical rules.” They also suggest that the need for bilingual children to select appropriate behaviour in two different languages “seems to strengthen bilingual children’s ability to show cognitive flexibility according to context – an aspect of self-control.”

    Bilingual children are also better able to understand others’ feelings according to research. Neuroscientists believe this may be because bilingual children get more practice considering other people’s perspectives because they need to choose the appropriate language for the person they’re speaking to.

    How early should we introduce another language?

    It’s never too early. We take children from 3 months onwards. We know of two main windows of sensitivity for language acquisition. The first window – sensitivity to phonemes – declines in the first two years of life, and the second – the capacity to learn syntax rules – starts to decline at around 8 years of age.

    The benefits of early bilingualism are also seen in very small infants. Neuroscientists Wang and Aamodt explain that even before they turn one, bilingual infants “learn abstract rules and reverse previously learned rules more easily…this pattern continues into adulthood and even shows up in nonverbal tasks.”

    Will learning Spanish affect my child’s acquisition of English?

    No. Historically, it was believed that languages had a subtractive effect on the brain: i.e. that speaking two languages meant you had half as much capacity in your brain for each of them. Studies have emphatically discredited this idea. Numerous studies have shown that bilingual children, in fact, understand more words than monolingual children when you combine both languages, and understand and produce similar numbers of words – in each language – to monolingual children of the same age. As neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang put it, “bilingual children reach language milestones at the same age…the research indicates that [childhood bilingualism] is not a disadvantage for your child’s language learning.”

    In a Dutch study, for example, bilingual (Dutch-French) infants were compared with monolingual (Dutch) infants at 13 and 20 months of age. At 13 months, the bilingual infants understood as many Dutch words as the monolingual infants. The overall word comprehension (Dutch and French combined) for the bilinguals, however, was an average of 71% greater than that of the monolinguals. At age 20 months, the bilingual children understood and produced similar numbers of Dutch words as the monolingual children.

    Your child is likely to go through a period of language mixing, using Spanish nouns in an English sentence or vice versa. This is a natural stage and is temporary (and very cute!). It will also help non-Spanish speaking parents pick up some vocabulary!

    How regularly should my child attend Bonitots to become bilingual?

    If they live in a non-Spanish speaking home, it is recommended that bilingual children spend a minimum of 20 hours per week actively using the minority language. Of course, with bilingual children, the greater the immersion in the minority language, the better.

    Does our home language affect whether my child should attend Bonitots?

    Children with any home language – from English or Spanish to French or Swahili – are welcome at Bonitots! If the home language is not English, we will work closely with parents during the school transition phase (starting at least 12 months before the child is due to start reception) to ensure the child is school ready.

    What can I do to support my child’s immersion experience if I don’t speak Spanish?

    The first thing to say is that you will learn some Spanish from your children!

    Counterintuitively, one of the best things you can do to support a child’s development of their second language is to support the development of their first language. The usual suspects – reading to them daily, talking to them about your daily activities and eating with them when possible – are all helpful for their language development. Parents will be informed about what the children have been exploring each week. If we have, for example, been working on a butterfly topic – watching a chrysalis transform into a butterfly, reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar (or La Pequeña Oruga Glotona in our case), baking butterfly cookies, making butterfly paintings and hunting for butterflies at Shrewsbury Park – it would be extremely helpful if parents could discuss these things in English with the children.

    Parents can also support the children’s burgeoning Spanish skills at home by giving the children access to Spanish music, story tapes or, for older children, films (many Disney films have a Spanish option, for example).