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Language lessons popular for US
( 2003-11-05 09:23) (China Daily)

The bikini, the miniskirt and the Beatles made their trend-setting ways from Europe to the United States, and now another import is arriving: foreign language lessons for youngsters.

For years, European and Asian children have been learning foreign languages at ages much earlier than their American counterparts, with some countries even requiring mandatory classes in grade school.

"It's been that way for at least a couple of generations," said John K. Glenn, executive director of the Council for European Studies at Columbia University. "We've seen that as both European integration increases and as globalization increased, the Europeans have been very quick to adapt to the importance of speaking another language."

American families have recently been catching up, however. More public schools are offering languages in elementary grades, and parents are enrolling younger children in foreign language programmes, both public and private.

"I started in my home with 10 babies, and now we have well over 160, and that's within a two-year teaching period," said Patrizia Saraceni Corman, founder of Italian for Toddlers on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

The trend has "been growing and growing," said Harriet Barnett, an educational consultant with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

"Parents are very interested in this," Barnett said. "Where programmes have been implemented, most of the time the parents are the ones that really are the force behind it."

Saraceni Corman was one of these self-starting parental forces. An Italian-American raised both in the United States and Italy, she wanted her son, now 5, to learn Italian. When she couldn't find a program, she started her own. She now has a staff of six instructors teaching children ranging in age from 6 months to 12 years.

"In a very, very short period of time, just through word of mouth, there are so many families interested in exposing their children to culture and Italian," Saraceni Corman said.

Rachel Meyer, co-owner of ABC Language Exchange, witnessed the same phenomenon. After founding the programme six years ago, she has watched her staff grow to 35 people, teaching 400 students a variety of languages, including Spanish, French, Italian and Chinese languages, as well as American sign language.

"They do think of the global village, and that languages are going to be important," Meyer said of parents. "Frankly, in New York, where you have a lot of these power couples and the power children, they want their kids to have the extra edge."

Numerous studies over the last few decades have shown that learning languages at young ages can stimulate brain development, making it easier to learn additional languages and other subjects. A 1996 position paper by the National Council of State Supervisors of Foreign Languages, for example, acknowledged research that suggests early study of a language may help raise standardized test scores and improve cognitive skills.

"The advantages, the intellectual and educational value, is enormous," Saraceni Corman said. "It's priceless."

For this reason, many public schools have also pushed to implement foreign language programmes in earlier grades, once again following Europe, where public school systems are mainly responsible for early language learning.

Ireland, Austria and the Scandinavian nations are leading proponents of early language education, said Glenn of the Council for European Studies.

In Austria, for example, it is mandatory for students to learn at least one foreign language beginning in the third grade. Eastern Europe, he said, is also strongly pushing classes in English and other major languages in an attempt to prepare itself more thoroughly for entrance into the European Union.

Barnett estimated that the number of American schools with early language programmes has doubled within the past 10 years. Several states have voted to approve language mandates, she said, including New Jersey, Arizona, Louisiana, Arkansas, Montana and Wyoming.

Budget burdens have hindered efforts in other areas, but Barnett said many schools have found alternate educational routes, such as informal sessions with teachers who happen to be bilingual, though not trained language instructors.

Many programmes are related to "the ethnicity in the area," Barnett said, such as French programmes in Louisiana or Spanish classes in California and Arizona, where there are significant Hispanic populations. And, in many areas where schools could not or did not adopt programmes, private businesses like Saraceni Corman's have sprung up, meeting the demand of parents who wanted to give their children an "edge."

But instructors and parents said that competition and ambition are not the only motives that prompt families to enroll young children in language classes.

"It was maybe more selfish," said Kristin Hattiangadi, who began bringing her 14-month-old daughter, Olivia, to sessions at Italian for Toddlers when the baby was just 6 months old.

"I wish I had learned, so I wanted her to learn," Hattiangadi said.

Other families say they recognize the increasing emergence of a global community and the subsequent necessity to adapt.

Lujeania Newton, of the Bronx, began sending her grandson, Ian, for Spanish lessons when he was 6.

"My understanding was, by the time he's a man and he's going to do business, he's going to need another language because we are becoming global and because of the population trend," Newton said.

"If you don't speak Spanish, you're not going to be hired for positions."

Many families also said they are trying to pass on heritage and cultural awareness. Saraceni Corman said her Italian classes include students whose parents are native Italians, and Meyer of the ABC Language Exchange organized Chinese language classes in Brooklyn for young students adopted from China.

Most involved in teaching foreign languages to children think the main motivation is that it gives youngsters an educational edge in a changing world.

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