Researchers tell us childhood is the best time to learn a second language, when developing brains are primed to absorb any and all information.
Unfortunately, most public elementary schools have no foreign language instruction, with school districts citing both the cost and the lack of time in the school day.
The University of Illinois is starting a new after-school language program for kindergarten and first-grade students in Champaign-Urbana, with plans to expand it to older grades.
The University Language Academy for Children will offer Spanish classes four days a week during the 2010-11 school year.
The academy is a project of the UI Department of Spanish, Italian & Portuguese, in cooperation with the UI Department of Special Education. It's modeled after the University Primary School and UI Child Development Lab, which combine the university's research, teaching and service missions.
Prof. Silvina Montrul, a professor of Spanish and linguistics who specializes in second language acquisition, said parents are clamoring for language options.
"Children should be learning languages early. The school systems do not support this. This is something parents want, and it's good for children," she said.
Research shows children who use a second language continuously starting in childhood are much more proficient than those who start at puberty, the age when many schools begin offering language instruction.
"Your level of achievement is much higher if you start early," Montrul said.
Early exposure to a second language also brings cognitive, academic, social and cultural benefits to children, with improved creativity, memory and listening skills, and often a greater understanding of thier own language, she said. It also becomes a "passport to another culture."
The best way to learn a second language is through frequent exposure in a rich learning environment, UI researchers say. So children at the academy will participate in "age-appropriate activities where they can use the language and learn by listening, speaking, and doing," according to the academy's materials.
The curriculum will include basic vocabulary, songs and games, useful phrases, story-telling and hands-on activities.
The 50-minute classes will meet Monday through Thursday, with sessions at 2:45 and 3:45 p.m. at University Primary School, 51 Gerty Drive, C.
Enrollment closes Friday (Aug. 25), and classes start Sept. 1. Montrul hopes to have a minimum of six students in each class, and a maximum of 16.
The registration fee is $75, and tuition is $216.60 per month for nine months, or $1,950 for the academic year.
For more information, and to register, contact Montrul via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If your chlidren are too old for the program, stay tuned. Montrol eventually would like to expand the classes to second and third grade, and beyond.
"We are creating the curriculum from scratch," she said.
In the meantime, you might consider starting an after-school language program on your own. A parent at South Side School in Champaign did that several years ago for kindergarten, third-grade and fifth-grade students -- her own daughters' ages -- recruiting other parents and hiring UI students and others to teach Spanish in her home.
Why Spanish? Consider these facts from the academy's brochure:
• The U.S. is currently the fifth-largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world, with more Spanish-speakers than any other nation except Mexico, Colombia, Spain and Argentina.
• Illinois has the fifth-largest number of Spanish speakers in the United States.
• The U.S. has almost 35 million Spanish speakers, not counting Puerto Rico.