Why teaching toddlers Mandarin Chinese is a smart investment

Now that China is the world's second largest economy, it's no surprise that a booming language immersion program has seen a 300 percent growth in demand for Mandarin Chinese.
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive


Now that China is the world’s second largest economy, it’s no surprise that a booming language immersion program has seen a 300 percent growth in demand for Mandarin Chinese.

Yesterday I spoke with Leslie Lancry, the founder and CEO of Language Stars, which offers full immersion language classes to toddlers, preschoolers and elementary school children. She currently has 15 language centers in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and offers programs at 140 elementary schools, teaching Spanish, French, Italian, German and Mandarin Chinese.

Lancry, who speaks five languages besides English, says Mandarin is the most popular first-learned language in the world and the second most popular language on the Internet. Parents recognize that learning Mandarin—and starting early--will help their children, she says, “It’s an investment in their future.”

You have launched dozens of programs in Washington and Chicago. What can you tell me about trends in language education and the demand for different languages in the U.S.?

Spanish has consistently been 60 percent of the demand for the Language Stars program. It’s not surprising, because parents realize their children can get reinforcement in the U.S. because it’s so wildly spoken.

But we’ve seen a phenomenal increase in the demand for Mandarin Chinese, which has increased by 300 percent in the last four years. It’s our No. 2 program. We think that’s driven by many factors, but the most compelling is parent recognition that it will help their children down the road. It’s an investment in their future.

Tell me more about that.

Generally, China’s emerging market standing makes Mandarin an especially attractive language. Mandarin Chinese is the most popular first language on the planet. It beats out English by 5 million speakers. And it’s the second most popular language used on the Internet. So it’s no surprise that parents will want their children to learn this.

Is Mandarin harder for children to learn than other languages?

Chinese is a tonal language—in which the same combination of consonants and vowels can be pronounced totally different ways-- and it’s much easier to learn that in earlier years. The younger they learn, the more authentically they can reproduce these sounds. Our focus is on the spoken language. As far as that goes, it’s no more difficult for the kids than the other languages.

What about the other traditional languages that Americans study, like French?

French is staying flat, and we anticipate that it will remain approximately where it is. German and Italian are solid heritage languages. Often a student enrolled will have more reinforcement because one of the parents or grandparents speaks it.

Why have you started with D.C. and Chicago?

We are targeting 10 to 20 cities with a mission to revolutionize how and when children learn a language. We chose Chicago and D.C. first because they had a base of parents and educators who support this.

When do most students start to learn a language now?

In junior high or high school, which is precisely after the natural window of opportunity to learn a language closes. Every human brain has the capacity to learn a language the same way we learn our native tongue. Every child up until about adolescence is capable of learning a second or third or fourth language as long as they have an immersion experience.

How much immersion do they need?

If a child is immersed by a native speaker at least once a week for a significant period of time, they will be able to do three things:

  1. They will be able to use the language spontaneously, without translating through English. We often see that come out at snack time. They will ask [for a snack] naturally in another language. It’s adorable.
  2. They will have the correct native accent. The brain is able to reproduce sounds, and they can pick up on their teacher’s native accent.
  3. They will benefit cognitively. Kids who learn more than one language young become smarter. There are studies that show, all other things being equal, kids who know more than one language score higher on the SAT.

How young can kids start your program?


One? How does a 1-year-old take language classes?

Our teachers know what the goal is that week, but from a child’s perspective, they are in an exciting parents and tots program that happens to be in another language. Unbeknownst to them, they are absorbing a foreign language. They are in their formative years.

How do you advise a parent on which language is best for their kid?

We generally say is doesn't matter, as long as your child learns a language young. The decision should be driven by two things:

  1. What language is most likely to have reinforcement outside the classroom?
  2. Which language do you think will give your child the biggest advantage in the future?

Some parents end up enrolling their children in more than one. Children are able to learn many languages at once. We have a child who has taken all five of our languages. He turned 10 and just recently graduated from the program.

If you had a toddler now, what languages would you have him or her learn?

Probably every language we offer. They can absorb a limitless amount of it. I’d rather them be doing that than doing the same things in English.

Relative to 10 years ago, Americans have completely changed their outlook about learning a language. We’ve seen a shift about the age that parents want their children to start learning. Imagine—10 years from now—this entire generation of [American] children, in all kinds of professions, being able to speak Mandarin Chinese fluently.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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