Take language acquisition for example. Between 0 and 4 years of age, children focus first on sounds, then syntax and vocabulary.
It’s a natural process, which gives credence to the increasingly popular practice of exposing kids to a second language at the same time they are learning their native tongue.
“It’s never too early for second language learning,” says Jackie Friedman Mighdoll. “In fact, the earlier, the better.”
Mighdoll is the founder of Sponge School, an award-winning world languages program for children.
When the Seattle woman was pregnant with her first son, she read Dr. Lise Eliot’s book, What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life.
In the process, she discovered the fascinating research on second language acquisition being done by Dr. Patricia Kuhl at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.
Having spent a decade working internationally and cross-culturally, Mighdoll knew how important it was to her to raise globally-minded kids.
It became even clearer that starting young was the right time.
Eighteen months later, with the support of local parents and a core group of passionate teachers, she opened Sponge School in the fall of 2005.
It was the first language program of its kind on the West Coast.
Today, the school has centers in Seattle, Bellevue and now Woodinville, at The Nest, a drop-off play and learning center.
The program also runs before- and after-school classes at numerous elementary schools in the Greater Seattle area.
“There are so many benefits to learning a second language when you’re young,” comments Mighdoll. “A child benefits linguistically, academically and culturally when he/she has early exposure to the language. Even small amounts of exposure at the age of six months can change the brain. It keeps the pathways open.”
She adds, “For elementary school students, the research shows that those who have language instruction at this stage are 70 percent more likely to reach proficiency than those who don’t start until they reach high school. And they often have higher standardized test scores, demonstrate more creative thinking, do better in math and possess good communication skills. It also prepares them for learning third and fourth languages, too.”
As for the cultural benefits, Mighdoll remarks that kids who know more than one language understand communication and culture.
They’re exposed to different perspectives and different ways of doing things, such as celebrating holidays or greeting one another.
She explains that younger kids aren’t self-conscious and they don’t typically face the fears of being different that tend to come later once they reach middle school.
She says, “Around puberty, children are very aware of what’s different and they turn away from it. If we reach them before that time, we can help make languages, cultures and the world a part of their lives and raise them to be compassionate global citizens.”
Sponge School offers child and caregiver classes for newborn to 4 years old, Just Kids sessions for the 3 to 5 age group and an elementary program geared toward the K-5 level.
For the wee ones, classes are 55 minutes long and highly interactive. Child and caregiver learn together through play, music and movement.
At the Just Kids stage, where classes are 85 minutes long, participants are ready for independent learning and are mastering their native language.
They naturally apply the skills they are developing to the acquisition of the second language.
The curriculum focuses on practical everyday vocabulary with new, fun units every five weeks that involve games, singing and movement – all conducted in the target language to optimize learning.
The elementary school program has three goals: build communication skills, develop language-learning strategies and broaden students’ understanding of the world.
Sessions include a variety of activities such as games, drama, crafts and songs, which are all done in the target language.
“We focus on day-to-day language,” says Mighdoll. “We want to give the kids practical vocabulary they can use within situations and contexts they understand. This is very important. The language must have meaning they can relate to.”
Currently, Sponge School has classes in Spanish, French, Japanese and Mandarin.
The most popular languages are Spanish and Mandarin.
Parents enroll their kids in the program for a variety of reasons.
Some, according to Mighdoll, have a heritage connection to the language. Others see the economic possibilities that learning a second language can offer.
Then there are those who have had a meaningful experience with a second language and want the same for their children.
As for the school’s teachers, Mighdoll explains that they are a diverse group who come from all over the world.
Many have degrees in language and education and years of teaching experience.
A number of them are parents themselves and have personally experienced the joys and challenges of raising bilingual children.
All have a passion for sharing language and culture with kids and their families.
Macarena Goldenberg, for example, has been teaching Spanish for Sponge School for the past three years.
Her greatest enjoyment comes from the children.
“I love them,” she says. “I love seeing how they respond to the language and how they learn without knowing they’re learning. They pick up the vocabulary quickly. The younger they are, the faster they progress.”
She adds, “We have a lot of fun in class. It’s very high energy. Lots of repetition. Lots of activity.”
Jana Maas, co-owner of The Nest, is thrilled at the enrichment opportunities that Sponge School brings to her facility.
She sees the classes as a wonderful complement to the Kinder Music program that is also in residence.
“It’s great to be able to offer these opportunities to our clients,” she comments. “And what’s nice is that we can help each other.
“ If a parent has two children of different ages and wants one of them to take a Sponge School class, for example, then she can let the other one play at The Nest. Of if she wants to take a class with her little one, then she can let the older one play.”
Mighdoll is equally delighted with the partnership.
“I’ve always loved The Nest,” she says. “We’ve been looking for the opportunity to expand to Woodinville and The Nest is the ideal place for us.
“It’s such a great space – bright, cheery, warm – and there’s a lot of flexibility and benefits for parents with this arrangement. We look forward to becoming part of the community.”
For more information about Sponge School: (206) 227-7138 or www.spongeschool.com.
For more information about The Nest: (425) 415-6378 or www.thenestkids.com.