Globalizing your toddler

Sep. 29, 2010 at 8:28 AM ET

By Sarah FarzamPablo el patoHola PabloPablo el pato

But, what ever happened to ballet class and karate? Today’s parents are facing a whole new set of challenges when they decide which enrichment programs would be best for their infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Sure, cooking and art-and-craft classes yield endearing centerpieces for the dinner table, but what about a class that leaves a lasting impression? When parents are considering what classes are most beneficial for their children, one compelling issue that should influence their choice is globalization. The world is becoming much smaller and nations are more interconnected than ever before. If we want to see positive advancement in our future, then we need to prepare our young children to genuinely embrace diversity. One of the best ways to do this is to learn a foreign language – the sooner, the better. I grew up in a trilingual household in California. My mother is from Mexico and my father is from Iran. Four decades ago, they were new immigrants and met in an English as a Second Language (ESL) class in college. As a result, years later I was a rare combination in my preschool. My classmates seemed to think I spoke gibberish when I would answer my father in Farsi. I noticed they would stare with confusion at my odd colored turmeric-and-paprika-infused lunches that my mother packed for me. After one month the verdict was in: I was different; and not in the cool "Dora the Explorer" way that most children love right now. Today the U.S. Census Bureau tells us we are seeing a continued increase in the birth of multi-ethnic babies. And, it seems, different is the next best thing in this country. More and more emphasis is being placed on the global job market, immigration, the growing Hispanic population in America, and the one billion Mandarin speakers living worldwide. The Multilingual Children’s Association says, "About 75 percent or the world’s population speaks more that one language.” Compare this to the only 20 percent of Americans who speak something other than English. Now is our chance! We have the ability and all the resources to teach our children what it means to be global citizens. You mean my 2-year-old is supposed to sit in a chair for an hour and look at flash cards in order to get a leg up in the new global economy? Alternative education is the answer to effective learning in the early years. At Bilingual Birdies, the children learn through live music, movement, dance, puppetry and exploratory games. The teachers are all bilingual musicians, come from theatre backgrounds and are trained to create a very child-centered classroom environment. The children use instruments such as mini-maracas and manipulatives like parachutes to learn basic vocabulary and short phrases in the foreign language. It’s important to make their introduction to foreign language learning an engaging and enjoyable experience. Scientific research shows that below five years of age is the most critical period for language acquisition. If parents are diligent about providing that opportunity, their children will be off to a profound start. When they’re exposed to languages like Mandarin, young children get the chance to learn sounds and intonations that do not exist in English. They are able to repeat words with perfect native accents due to the malleability of their developing brains. The Multilingual Children’s Association explains, “Children less than one year old have a 63 percent chance of learning a second language, versus a 1 percent chance of learning one as a teenager.” The idea is to get children excited about learning a foreign language so that later in life, they will already have an interest in becoming fluent and communicating with others. Here are some of my favorite tips on how to encourage foreign language and culture learning even if you are not a bilingual parent: • Play music, DVDs, and read books in the foreign language.

• Select weekly themes and “words of the day” that relate to the developmental world of children and repeat them at home.

• Identify moments where you can embrace cultural differences and learn about new foods, traditions and art.

• Sign up for an age appropriate foreign language program where you can follow the curriculum and celebrate foreign language learning together. Today we see it actually takes a global village to raise a child. As our world continues to shift it's crucial to promote open-mindedness in the hearts of young children. We really are all in this together. Sarah Farzam is the Founder and Director of Bilingual Birdies, a foreign language and live music program in New York City. She is dedicated to creating culturally rich content for infants, toddlers and preschools. Her goal is to reach as many children and families as possible to foster an inspiring community of globally conscious people. Visit for more information While many schools are cutting back on teaching foreign languages, studies show that being bilingual can help students become better readers and writers. And, as Natalie Morales reports, two languages are proving to be more important than ever. Do you encourage foreign language and culture in your own home? Watch the video and share your thoughts in the comment section.

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