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Preschool and elementary Spanish and the neurology of the bilingual brain

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to the Sonrisas Spanish School curriculum. It illustrates the importance and benefits of learning a second language at an early age.

In November of 1965, the respected Canadian neurologist Dr. Wilder Penfield published a paper in the scientific journal Brain that discussed his research on language acquisition in the human brain. Penfield discovered that a large area of brain cortex is uncommitted at birth. As a child grows, language and perception become the functions of this area. For language, this area of uncommitted cortex serves as the part of the brain that allows one to retain vocabulary and remember how to use it. For perception, this area of the brain allows one to remember the past and interpret the present. Discussing the development of the cortex, Penfield writes:

“Before a child begins to speak and to perceive, the uncommitted cortex is a blank slate on which nothing has been written. In the ensuing years, much is written, and the writing is normally never erased. After the general age of 10 or 12 the general functional connections have been established and fixed for the speech cortex. After that the speech center cannot be transferred to the cortex of the lesser side and set up all over again. This “non-dominant” area that might have been used for speech is now fully occupied with the business of perception.”

Given his findings about neurological development, Penfield advocates for what he calls the “mother’s method” for teaching second languages to children. In three or four years, a mother may teach her child only a few hundred words of the child’s first language, but even this will serve to develop the functional connections of the speech cortex. Penfield  suggests that when a child hears a second language and learns to use a few hundred words in that language, his uncommitted cortex is conditioned to continue study of that language well beyond his childhood years. An educator can implement Penfield’s mother’s method by simply giving the child an age-appropriate experience in the second language. The child then begins to use this second language naturally, just as she would begin to use the first language her mother taught her. The child can even carry out her normal daily activities in the target language.

Penfield suggests that educators use the mother’s method when teaching a foreign language and also begin this method before children reach the age of eight. A child, he explains, cannot learn language in the “classical method,” that is, through grammar, word lists, and translation. Using the mother’s method for acquiring a second language, however, the child becomes a “language genius,” because this method is tightly connected to the neurological development taking place in the child’s brain.

Penfield also poses that because of the “switch mechanism” that is developed in the bilingual child, a person who is bilingual has a greater capacity to learn a third language as an adult—those who are bilingual are able to switch off the mother tongue more easily and learn the new language directly. Furthermore, he suggests that even a limited familiarity with additional languages in the first decade of life equips the child with a more efficient brain. He cites a study conducted under Professor W. E. Lambert at McGill University that concluded that bilingual ten-year-old children scored higher on intelligence tests than unilingual children of the same age. A second study by the same department found that bilingual university students scored higher than unilingual students in both verbal and nonverbal tests.

Penfield’s discoveries were confirmed decades later by a study published in 1997 in the scientific journal Nature. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging techniques at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, researchers were able to map brain activity in healthy, bilingual adults. They discovered that the brains of adults who learned two languages in early childhood stored the two languages in the same area of the brain, while bilingual adults who learned their second language in adolescence used a separate, adjacent region of the brain to store the non-native language. This finding suggests that the age at which one acquires language may be a significant factor in determining the functional organization of this area of the human brain.

At Sonrisas Spanish School, we teach Spanish to children ages two through twelve. Our experience has shown us that the younger the student, the more quickly and efficiently he acquires the second language and retains it. In fact, we believe the success of our students is due primarily to the approach of the Sonrisas curriculum, which closely resembles Penfield’s mother’s method. These very young students are learning English and Spanish simultaneously, their brains eager and open. At Sonrisas Spanish School, we engage in typical children’s activities—songs, games, stories, and art projects—in Spanish. Like Dr. Penfield, we believe that providing second language instruction during these tender, special years puts students at a tremendous advantage in developing language skills and acquiring language proficiency, no matter what the language, throughout their lives.

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