Soaking up languages like a sponge

A report I found today talks about a school in Seattle called sponge which aims to teach babies and children four languages – Spanish, Mandarin, French and Japanese – through play, songs, stories, etc. They have teachers who are native speakers of the languages they teach and take children from as young 5 months and up to 5 years old.

This sounds like an interesting approach to language teaching and I’m sure that children will benefit from this multilingual environment. I wonder whether they’ll become fluent in all the languages though – they may not get sufficient exposure to each to acquire them fully. Perhaps that isn’t the point of the school.

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This entry was posted in Language, Language acquisition, Language learning.

0 Responses to Soaking up languages like a sponge

  1. Colm says:

    I doubt they’ll become fluent in all of them but I imagine a daily exposure of the basics of the language (sounds especially) early in a child’s life can only be a positive thing.

  2. Phil says:

    I was told a story once about a study. I have no idea if it’s true or not. However, the story goes that an infant was cared for by a different nanny for each day of the week. Each nanny spoke only her mother tongue to the child, and, of course, each nanny spoke a different language to the others. The child learnt and was fluent in 8 languages. Though as I write this it has the feeling of an urban legend.

    However, when I was in Taiwan teaching English there was a deluxe (extremely expensive) kindergarten school where children would go in for 5 hours a day. These children would be fluent in English with perfect accents and intonation.

  3. BG says:

    Is each child exposed to all 4 languages, or do the parents pick a specific language?

  4. Simon says:

    BG – I think each child is exposed to all 4 languages.

  5. LandTortoise says:

    To me the important question is WHY the children should learn a number of languages. Languages embody a culture and to teach them just because children can learn them is a hollow exercise. It reminds me of those parents who hothouse their children for entry to Oxbridge at 14. What’s the point?

    The teaching/absorbtion of languages by young children should have a worthy purpose: the language of a parent for heritage purposes; a minority language of a country of residence for purposes of identity (Irish); the other langauge of bilingual countries for the purposes of non-sectarianism (Flemish/French).

    I fear that the Taiwanese example cited by Phil above confirms my suspicion that the forced acquisition of English in a non-English context is likely to be for snobbish reasons linked to perceived economic advantages of the acquisition.

  6. DL says:

    Even if one only knows a few introductory phrases in different languages it makes this person more appealing to a native of that language/culture than does someone totally ignorant to the language as a whole. The Basque people will associate with other Basques even if they don’t know the same dialect of Euskera, as I’m sure is the same with people of other language groups.

    So my point–I can see how learning the basics of four different languages will help. It will allow them to be able to present themselves in a professional and respectful manner contrary to the case with people without this knowledge in a linguistic setting other than their native. In a few years maybe they will pick their favorite language of the four and acquire excellent abilities in this language.

  7. Aidan says:

    I had a look at the site and the children are being exposed to a target language not all four languages. Exposing your children to more than three languages is not regarded as a good thing as a child needs to be immersed in a language for 30% of the time to become properly fluent. Too many languages could lead to semi-linguality (basically not speaking any language fluently).
    My children are being raised as Polish/English/Dutch trilinguals using the One Parent One Language method living in Holland. I go on the site http://www.multilingualchildren.org quite often and there are many parents raising multilingual kids using different methods including speaking a non-native language to their children.
    One thing that I would disagree with is that exposing kids to languages at a young age is always benificial. I don’t think that it is harmful but kids forget languages just as easily as they pick them up so it is only worth putting energy into teaching them something they will keep using. From that point of view I think that LandTortoise is correct about the need for some kind of context. Children generally only learn languages that have some kind of use to them.

  8. Seumas says:

    While I’m all for multilingualism in children, I just wonder if (unless they have parents who speak the languages) these kids will get sufficient exposure to any of these languages to actually learn them? Knowing a few nouns in Spanish or Japanese is nice, but if you are only exposed to these langauges enough to take those nouns as loanwords into your essentially monolingual English brain, is it really that amazing? As someone already pointed out, children also forget languages incredibly quickly once they stop using them.

    I’ve seen kids here in Scotland, who don’t have Gaelic speaking parents, become fluent in Gaelic through their schooling – but it was through total immersion all day every day in Gaelic-medium schools… which provides a lot of exposure over a period of years, rather than taking your infant to an immersion class for 1 hour a week in a language that neither of you understand.

    I think if I had some kind of wider support network to teach my children Spanish or Japanese (i.e. if someone in the home could speak it, if there was a bilingual school programme to put the kids into once they hit 5), I would consider Sponge a useful aid.

  9. Alf says:

    My sister and I were both exposed to many languages as children. My parents and relatives spoke English and Italian with us at home and then French when they didn’t want us to understand. We lived in a Caribbean neighborhood of New York City so most of our neighbors spoke Spanish. We took Spanish and French in school. When I was nine we moved to Italy for two years. Even so, as adults, my sister can not speak any of these languages other than English. I am a polyglot, but I think this is a more a genetic ability rather than exposure.

    Exposure for exposure’s sake at a young age is more a lesson in diversity than anything else. Being exposed to a language at a very young age is absolutely no guarantee that any of it will be retained. My mother spent the first few years of her life with a Mandarin-speaking nanny and remembers none of it.

  10. Lija says:

    This is interesting.:) I was ten when I started picking up Chinese, but I had a desire to learn it, which probably sped up the acquisition process.

    If you think about it, knowing a language fully requires listening comprehension, reading comprehension, and speaking comprehension. Reading may not be needed, but listening comprehension and speaking comprehension can be quite different from each other. There are children who can understand a native tongue, but cannot speak it very well at all.

    I’d think these kids would obtain greater language learning skills because of the immersion. But I don’t think they would learn all the languages fluently.