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What You May Have Missed at the JCC

For those who missed the opportunity to attend our special learning sessions at the JCC this past month, here’s a glance at how La Escuelita is working to better inform our community about early bilingual education and play-based learning. We want to be your best resource, so if you have any ideas for future topics we can explore together, please don’t hesitate to share them with us.

We were honored to host Dr. Ellen Bialystok on October 1st, whose research has inspired the popular conversation in recent years on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. She shared some of her findings with us, including the benefit of a possible delayed onset of dementia among bilinguals, but also inspired us with a healthy dose of common sense. The potential cognitive benefits can be exciting, but bilingualism should ultimately be pursued for the amazing benefit it has in and of itself; the ability to facilitate deeper relationships with other individuals and cultures!

She also shared with us what she would like to be considered “Bialystok’s law” which is “Don’t let anyone tell you what language to speak to your child.” Children can distinguish between languages; everyone can thanks to executive control, the part of your brain which manages all of your cognitive processes such as working memory, reasoning, etc. Bilinguals rarely confuse languages. Some educational experts may tell you to focus on the majority language with your child, especially if there is a speech delay. Don’t listen; especially if the language you speak most to your child is your home or heritage language. Speak whatever language you wish to your child, even if you don’t believe you speak it well enough.

On October 8th, I moderated a panel on reinforcing early bilingualism with Angelica Infante-Green, Lourdes Davilla, Jack Friedman and Eliza Weber. As any parent choosing this path for their child can tell you, it’s a challenge. Strategies were discussed, such as only speaking Spanish to your child, if not all of the time, at least at certain designated times. For older children, formal instruction in Spanish, such as Dual Language schools, classes at CENY and select Afterschool offerings at La Escuelita help reinforce bi-literacy, as well as encouraging (or requiring!) your children to read books in Spanish at home. Movies in Spanish and travel are some of the more exciting ways to not only reinforce the language, but increase exposure to various Latin cultures.

But what really stood out that evening was the heartfelt discussion on just how difficult it can be to raise a bilingual child and how important it is not to lose faith in doing so. Lourdes Davilla shared with us how sometimes she would feel as though she were isolating herself and her daughter at the playground when she would only speak Spanish. Jack Friedman, our 14 year old panelist and son of La Escuelita co-founder, Jennifer Friedman, made the point that parents not only need to be clear on the reason why they want their children to be bilingual, but the children themselves really need to know and appreciate that reason if they are going to have the drive to continue to foster the second language, no matter how difficult it can be. For many, the reason is extended family. The quality of relationships we will have with family members who primarily speak Spanish will suffer if we cannot connect with them in Spanish.

Angelica Infante-Green emphasized that the bilingual brain is different; it is always balancing the languages. It’s a myth that anyone can hold two languages equally in the brain at once; it’s important to realize this because maintaining two languages can feel like a lot of work, and when you struggle in one language, you may wrongly conclude that you’re simply not capable of bilingualism or that you’re asking too much of your child. Jack shared that when he approaches something academic, like a mathematical concept, he thinks about it in the language in which he first learned it. So if he learned to multiply fractions in English first, he will think of it in English and vice versa.

Eliza Weber reminded us that bilingualism is a spectrum. Among her three children, there are varying levels of Spanish competency based on how intense the exposure to Spanish has been. When she saw that her older sons were losing their ability to communicate in Spanish, she enrolled her youngest daughter in La Escuelita and she has the strongest Spanish of the three children. But she has seen with all of her children a strong foundation in Spanish that allows for easier acquisition when they are immersed in a Spanish only environment and she facilitates that through classes and camps, particularly camps in Spanish speaking countries.

On October 15th, we discussed the importance of play in early childhood education. Play based education is one of our three core values at La Escuelita. Jennifer Woodruff, co-founder of La Escuelita, moderated a panel of early childhood educators and directors which included Josine Sharpiro, Whendy Carter, Patty Wollman Summers, Mónica Amaro and Shuber Naranjo. Play is the way we believe children learn. Jennifer reminded us that play in preschool is different than play at home, as the environment is carefully considered and educators are continually observing the children in play and looking for ways to extend their learning through play. A good preschool program encourages and celebrates children’s investigations, efforts and thought processes and does not overly focus on the final product or the “right” answer. Shuber Naranjo shared with us his personal litmus test; if you see carefully constructed homogenous art or “work” pieces on the walls, it’s not a play-based preschool.

Whendy Carter encouraged the audience to set the stage for play at home as well. She advised occasionally pretending to ignore your child at home, especially the first-born or only child, to encourage independent play. Your child is more likely to button a sweater on his own when an adult isn’t hovering over him with every button; he’s being given the freedom to test his theories, explore and fail first. Imagine the personal sense of accomplishment he feels when he succeeds!

Patty Wollman Summers shared her opinion that exposure to technology, such as Ipads, shouldn’t necessarily be avoided with young children, despite current conventional parenting wisdom. Technology provides another opportunity for your child to authentically explore the world around them, as long as it is used in moderation. Despite the learning opportunities technology may bring, there is no substitute for authentic connection with other human beings.

We are grateful to have such an expansive and knowledgeable community on bilingualism and early childhood education at La Escuelita, members of which gave so generously of their time over these three evenings. If you have any questions or would like to continue the conversation, Rosie and I are always willing and available to discuss.

Here’s to raising curious and bilingual lifelong leaners!

Kelley