Kids that learn two or more languages before the age of six have a better chance of retaining those languages and becoming multilingual adults, said Dr. Sylvia Dubovoy, an expert in Montessori and bilingual education.
It's imperative to expose children to two or three languages during the time of cerebral formation (from birth to five years), Dubovoy said during a presentation on bilingual education at Family Star Montessori School in Denver recently. The important thing is not to mix up the languages because that creates confusion in the learning of vocabulary, she said.
"One person, the father, for example, should speak one language, while another person, perhaps the teacher, speaks the other. It is incorrect to say, 'Where are your zapatos?' That confuses the child," she explained. "When you build vocabulary at an early age, it forms more neurological pathways in the brain, making for a more intelligent child."
Dubovoy is the director of the Montessori Institute of San Diego in La Jolla, Calif. She is also a U.S. representative of the Association Montessori Internationale, based in Amsterdam. AMI offers training and certification in the Montessori teaching method, which emphasizes student-directed learning and clinical observation on the part of the teacher.
As a Montessori educator, Dubovoy, who is originally from Mexico City, has trained teachers in Canada, Spain, Mexico and other countries.
Martha Urioste, founder of Family Star, invited Dubovoy to share her expertise in bilingual and dual language education, Urioste said.
"The public usually doesn't have the opportunity to meet people with Dr. Dubovoy's knowledge. We wanted to know the best ways to teach students who speak two languages and the steps to follow so that they don't lose their maternal language," said Urioste.
Dubovoy explained that there's confusion between bilingual and dual-language education, and that educators should consider the differ-ences before adopting policies for their schools.
"A bilingual person is someone who has spoken two languages since birth. Dual-language means that a person has been immersed in a language that was not maternal," she said. "The terms are not interchangeable."
She added that the best way to assure that a child doesn't lose his maternal language is to continue his learning of that language in the home, reading books and speaking with parents.
Edwin Jimenez Galvan, family service administrator for the Denver Mayor's Office for Education and Children, said this is complicated because when immigrant parents arrive in this country they focus on their children learning English. Sometimes parents quit speaking to their children in their maternal language because "they don't want to confuse them or have them develop an accent," he said.
"Dr. Dubovoy spoke about the importance of being more intentional when we're teaching our children another language. One of the things she suggested is to totally immerse children in that other language and not to mix English and Spanish," he said. "I recommend that parents keep speaking to their children in their own language. Kids will learn English at school from teachers who speak the language well."
Natalia Alvarez, the mother of three multilingual children, said that she agrees with Dubovoy's recommendations because she has seen them work in her own family. Alvarez, who was born in Paraguay, speaks to her daughters in Spanish. Her husband, Jerome Cain, who is French, speaks to the girls in French. Together the family speaks English.
Ariane, who is 9, attends the private Denver Montclair International School, where her lessons are in English and French.
Her sister, Victoria, 15, who also attended Montclair, speaks and writes in three languages. In fact,
Victoria was honored for receiving one of the highest scores in the country on a national French exam, her mother said.
Urioste wants public school children to have the option to get a bilingual education to expand their opportunities in a global economy. The trouble is that education in this country continues to be monolingual, she said.
"We have to tell parents that Spanish is a beautiful language. The importance of Spanish has been diminished in this country for many decades to the point that we've turned it into a compensatory language, and it shouldn't be that way," Urioste said.