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A bilingual future: More parents are sending their kids to language classes

Miami Herald
February 21, 2009
BY ANA VECIANA-SUAREZ

Ten-year-old Elle Futernick spends half her day at Key Biscayne Community School speaking Spanish in the classroom. Twice a week she practices her Mandarin Chinese, along with older brother Zander. At home her family speaks English.

"I know how valuable language is in a global economy," says their mother, Karen Beber, who is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. ``And understanding cultures from around the world is such a gift. I think this is something they will always use in whatever they do. It's the future."

Indeed, in a world where economic ties reach beyond oceans and continents, learning a foreign language is fast becoming the skill of choice for parents who want to give their children a leg up in a competitive environment. They're enrolling their kids in language programs in schools and hiring private tutors to supplement classroom teachings, spurring growth in a cottage industry of language centers catering to children as young as 3.

"When I started in 1973, teaching language was a home thing. You did it to maintain culture," says Lourdes Rovira, former director of bilingual programs of Miami-Dade Public Schools. ``Now parents are looking at it as an essential skill in a global economy. It's been taken out of the family tradition and become an economic decision."

Gone are the worries that learning two or more languages will prove confusing to children or that learning another language is . . . well, foreign. South Florida, often the epicenter for all things multicultural, may be leading the way.

"South Florida is an example of what we need to be doing in the rest of the country" in teaching language in the schools, says Naomi Steiner, author of 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child ($14.95, Amacom) and a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. ``Parents are waking up to this idea that we have to work with different people from different cultures, and a great way to do this is in their language."

What's more, parents don't have to be bilingual themselves to raise a bilingual child, though having one parent speak the language certainly helps. "There only has be a committed, consistent effort and a plan," adds Steiner.

While fluency in Spanish has always been prized in predominantly Hispanic South Florida, at least one other language is gaining a firm foothold with young linguists. Language centers in Miami-Dade and Broward report a growing interest in Mandarin Chinese. This is evident at the Global Institute of Languages and Culture in Plantation, where director Antonieta Mercado has noticed a sizable increase in requests for lessons from both adults and children.

It comes down to dollars and trade. "Corporate people realize it's important to do business with China," Mercado adds. ``Knowing the language helps."

Spanish, however, remains the No. 1 choice for children (and parents) interested in a second language, mainly because many households already speak the language and because of the proximity to Latin America.

PLENTY OF INTEREST

When Step by Step Languages decided to expand its business into the United States from Europe and Latin America, it chose to open an office in South Miami, focusing on teaching only Spanish. Director Roberto Giuffredi was told he wouldn't be able to drum up enough business. After all, Miami-Dade public school kids could already take a second language as early as kindergarten if they were native speakers or second grade if they were not.

But Giuffredi found an eager clientele who recognized that 2 ½ hours a week in elementary school -- the standard offering -- was not enough for their children. Now, six years after opening, his small center bustles with students every afternoon. Summer camps are also available.

Immersion summer camps are not new, of course. Back in 1999, two Miami-Dade Spanish language elementary school teachers launched Camp Ñ for children whose Spanish was no muy bueno. It's still going strong at the University of Miami campus. Most of Camp Ñ students, like those of other programs, come from mixed families, where one parent speaks the second language but the other doesn't. In some cases, both parents are bilingual, don't speak Spanish at home but want their children to practice.

Francine Tomas, a Step by Step customer, is one of them. She is from New Mexico, and husband Mike is of Dominican descent. Tomas enrolled daughter Francesca, now 11, at Step by Step when it first opened six years ago though she takes Spanish four days a week in school. Years later, she also enrolled Alessandra, 7.

"I wanted a little extra and I wanted them to have more than conversational Spanish," says Tomas, who eventually learned Spanish when the family lived in Mexico for three years. ``It's important for them to know it and not only for family. It's for their well-being. When they become young career women, it will definitely be an asset."

PARLEZ-VOUS?

It's not just Spanish, or Chinese, that attracts students, of course. At Alliance Francaise in Miami, 4- to 7-year-olds take Friday afternoon classes, and older elementary kids participate in Saturday morning classes in French. Most have one parent who speaks the language. "We're seeing more and more parents who want their kids to get an early start on the language," says Valerie Quiñonez.

Schools are also recognizing the need for second-language instruction, and the special language courses and magnet programs offered by public schools have proved to be hugely popular, says Toni Miranda, district supervisor for Miami-Dade's division of bilingual education and world languages. Parents often lobby to attract, say, an Extended Foreign Language program to their elementary school, which doubles the amount of language instruction.

"The trend is definitely to up the language requirement," she adds.

Broward curriculum specialist Blanca Guerra says demand is growing in her county as well. ``Parents are very motivated. It has become a necessity, not a luxury."

But parents are also discovering that the limited time spent in the classroom during school hours is not enough to make their children completely bilingual. "What many of our children know is kitchen Spanish," says Rovira. ``But you want them to be biliterate, to be able to read and write in both languages."

Hence, the private and after-school classes. Those, however, don't come cheap. And it can take years for a child to grow fluent, particularly if there is no immersion experience or extra practice at home. Camps cost hundreds of dollars, and private lessons can run into the thousands.

But if it's any consolation to those who can't afford the steep price of private language learning, experts also say that a child's fluency is largely determined by interest -- interest from the child and parent.

The Internet makes it easy for parents to buy age-appropriate books, CDs and DVDs in another language. Many toy companies also market their products in another language, primarily Spanish. One of them, Miami-based Baby Abuelita, has a line of dolls that sings lullabies and nursery rhymes in Spanish. It's a favorite in South Florida.

"The key is the home," Rovira says. ``It depends on how much respect, how much value the parents place on knowing more than one language."



 
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