CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Parents considering enrolling their young children in after-school piano lessons, ballet classes, gymnastics or martial arts now have another option for enriching their future – a Spanish language course. Taught by native or near-native Spanish speakers, the curriculum presents Spanish to children ages 4 through 8 using games, crafts, stories and songs.
Games make learning a new language fun. | View video | Photo by Katherine Gatsche
“By playing, they learn a lot, and they’re having fun,” said Silvina Montrul, the head of the University of Illinois department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. “We want the children to enjoy the classes.”
Montrul, who also is the director of the Second Language Acquisition and Bilingualism Lab, established the University Language Academy for Children in September 2010. Classes meet for about an hour four days a week at University Primary School. Enrollment is open through Aug. 31 (Sunday), and classes begin Sept. 6 (Tuesday).
Montrul can point to studies that prove that early childhood is the best time to learn a second language, and that bilingualism stimulates brain health throughout a person’s life, even delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s. She also can cite statistics that show that Spanish is the logical second language to learn. The 2010 census shows that there are more than 50 million Spanish-speakers in the United States, making it the second-largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world, outranked only by Mexico. And in the U.S., Illinois has the fifth-highest number of Spanish speakers.
“The same way that many of us have had to learn English in other countries – to make you competitive, to function in society – I think Spanish proficiency is one of those competencies that people in the United States will have to have in the future,” Montrul said.
Growing up in Argentina, Montrul and her classmates learned English in elementary school (she also speaks French). But such programs to teach children a second language, so common in other countries, are so rare in the U.S. that Montrul and her staff were forced to create curriculum materials from scratch. They found creative ways to teach the children the standard vocabulary of greetings, colors, numbers, days of the week and months of the year, as well as words for seasons, animals, various foods, emotions, family members and body parts. The older children progress into reading and writing in Spanish.
Montrul analyzed the fees charged for other children’s activities to set the price for the academy at $215 per month for four classes per week. The academy runs throughout the school year.
“It’s comparable to what you would pay for other after-school activities that children do in this town,” Montrul said. “Parents spend money on music lessons, ballet lessons, martial arts lessons. This is another skill that enhances cognition and other aspects of intelligence as children develop. This is a tool they will use for life.”