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New York Parents Learn Foreign Languages to Help Kids Become Fluent

By DNAinfo Staff on March 6, 2013 7:42am

By Julie Norwell

Special to DNAinfo.com

NEW YORK — A set of overachieving New Yorkers eager for their babies to grow up multilingual is taking matters into their own hands — immersing themselves in language classes to help create a fluent home.

"I wanted to give my son the gift of French, but I’m not fluent. I started with a French babysitter, but a friend convinced me I would have to speak French to my son myself if I really wanted him to be fluent," said Rhonda Ross, a Harlem resident.

Ross, 41, went to boarding school in French-speaking Switzerland. Although it was an English-speaking school, French became important to her and she wanted the language to be part of her son Raif’s life. When Raif was just 1, Ross began addressing him exclusively in French. 

“If I didn’t know a word, I would get a dictionary or use simpler language. I took classes and constantly worked on my language skills,” said Ross, who said she also armed herself with French playdates, storybooks and videos and the aid of her French-speaking babysitter.

Today, 3-1/2-year-old Raif chatters more comfortably in French to his mother than he does in English to his father. In fact, the experiment has been so successful that Ross has introduced Mandarin and Spanish to Raif.

And Ross isn't alone.

Many New York parents have been lining up to give their children foreign language classes, well before they can speak. There are Mandarin classes across the city for infants and toddlers.

But the new trend is pushing parents to sign up for classes as well, to make sure their kids' education doesn't end in the classroom.

Jennifer Wilkin, who speaks French to her 7-year-old, founded the Science, Language and Arts school in 2001 to offer parents and children a place to learn together.

Her school offers a classical French-immersion education with a strong Mandarin component. 

“It’s the craziest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” said Wilkin, 44, a mother from Brooklyn.

“There is certainly a trend among New Yorkers to give a language to their children."

Wilkin said she was the only person she knew to use a non-native language with her child seven years ago. Now, she knows several parents who are learning, and speaking, Spanish, Japanese, French and German to their children.

Ross credits a Haitian friend from The Bronx, Dorline Jean-Lopez, for her commitment to teaching Raif French.

Jean-Lopez, 38, a speech-language pathologist who grew up speaking Creole, had researched the merits of bilingualism and wanted her own daughter, Sophia, to be multilingual. She decided to use French.

"Sophia would learn Creole from my family, but she wouldn’t get French from anywhere if I didn’t do it," Jean-Lopez said.

She learned French at school, but hadn’t spoken it since she was 14 years old.

“I rely on books and we watch a lot of [French-language] TV. I listen to French news. If I don’t know words, I look them up,” she said.

“Sometimes I think, ‘I have some nerve doing this!’” Jean-Lopez said.

She confesses that it’s easy to speak to a baby in a foreign language, but now that her daughter is 4, it’s far more difficult. Jean-Lopez knows the day is coming soon when Sophia will correct her mother's French.

One ambitious Harlem couple figured that if one foreign language is a good idea, two is even better. Danielle Dubeau studied French in college and lived in France briefly while her husband, Nathan, 36, studied Japanese and lived in Japan. Danielle now speaks French to their daughters, who are 2 1/2 and 1, and Nathan speaks to them in Japanese.

"It’s hard to teach new words if we don’t know them ourselves," admitted Danielle Dubeau. “But we look things up or describe the words we want to use."

The couple relies on books, videos, flashcards and as much exposure to native speakers as possible. Their older daughter, Hanae, now commands a respectable vocabulary in both languages and switches easily between them.

Although some of their friends and family think they’re crazy, the 31-year-old mom insists that she’s not daunted because she has done a lot of research. “The best time to learn languages is between zero and 5 [years of age]. We want to give our daughters the best possible opportunity. I figure we can always stop. The hardest thing is to start!” she said.

Judith Frost, Founder of Little Global Village, an Upper West Side language immersion program for children, concurs that the critical period for language development is early childhood. After two years, the business is doing remarkably well.

“I feel like we touched a nerve,” Frost said. “There is tremendous interest among Americans to give their kids a leg up on languages.”

Indeed, parents who use a non-native language with their children overwhelmingly call their effort a "gift."

Danielle and Nathan Dubeau confess that building their daughters’ language is increasingly challenging.

“Hanae has passed me now!” said her dad. “TV teaches her things I don’t know. I have to ask friends what she’s saying.”

He says that Japanese parents remark that Hanae speaks Japanese better than kids her age in Japan do.

He believes he knows why: “Because we’re not natives, we try harder.”