The Story of Foreign Languages for Kids
When Kit Strauss couldn’t find educational materials that would help her children learn a second language, the suburban Maryland mom and lawyer-turned-entrepreneur created better products herself. And she got her children involved – with the aim of appealing to students as well as their parents.
“Kids like watching other kids,” says Kit, and “my children and their friends were my guide as to what was fun and humorous and what kids would enjoy as we created the videos and games.”
The result has been a successful, award-winning language learning program called Foreign Languages for Kids by Kids®.
Kit, who founded Foreign Languages for Kids by Kids® in 2011, had provided language education to her three boys from a very early age. As she observed their progress, she noticed that children who were allowed to start learning a second language at an earlier age found it easier to learn. “I began to see kids who started in preschool or in elementary school, had an openness to learning that older kids did not have,” she says.
Her observations are backed by research. According to the American Council for Teaching Foreign Languages (ACTFL), “beginning the study of languages early is helpful in developing proficiency, and language learning often supports skills used in other courses and enhances overall academic performance. However, the availability of language study in elementary school and middle school is limited for some students.”
This advantage is also acknowledged by students. A survey by ACTFL has found that nearly two-thirds of high school students say they wish they could have started learning a language earlier, in elementary school or middle school. The study also found that interest in beginning language study earlier increases as students progress through high school: seniors are almost 20 percent more likely than freshmen to say they wish they had started earlier.
Kit’s approach has had clear results. Foreign Language for Kids by Kids® has been recognized by experts having won more than 15 top education awards in the company’s first two years for its Spanish videos and Spanish board game, a Creative Child Program of Scooter Bay Media which gave 2013’s “Game of the Year Award” to FLK’s Dice Off™, a fun and engaging language learning game, and “Media of the Year Award” to FLK’s Spanish language educational DVD. In its first year, the Spanish DVD has won 7 awards, 5 of them in Education.
More importantly for Kit, her three boys, ages 9, 11 and 13, are proficient in Spanish and Mandarin, despite challenges each of them faced in speech delay and other learning disabilities. Kit described her oldest son Eli’s early language difficulties, diagnosed as motor planning delays, saying “he could not string words together, not even 2 words. For example, he could say ‘yellow’ and ‘bus’, but he couldn’t say ‘yellow bus’. It was scary….” According to Kit, the turning point came when he began to study a second language. “When he started learning French, something seemed to click for him and his English took off.” Years of language education have paid off: In 2012, Eli won a Chinese language speech competition in Washington, D.C., in which he was the only non-Chinese participant. Just last week, he aired in China on Voice of America’s radio program in Asia, explaining why learning Chinese is so interesting and easier than many think.
Building on what she learned by observing her sons’ education and adding what she knew about their preference for fun activities, Kit has put together a curriculum to teach children Spanish or Mandarin that uses humor as a key component. “It’s all about being comfortable, and having fun. Kids have the benefit of time to learn so it is critical they enjoy learning a second language or they will tune out or quit. Our goal is for children to be excited about knowing a foreign language. Many kids in our Chinese Summer Camps and Spanish classes were really enthusiastic by the end of the programs. Parents and kids were asking us if we would bring our program to their schools and some of the kids were even asking for tutors!”
Luca Lampariello, a language consultant who speaks twelve languages, quoted in a post by Martin Williams on the Guardian’s professional network, makes a similar point: “The best method is the method you like. Languages cannot be taught, they can only be learnt.” This highlights the difficulties for successful classroom teaching of foreign languages. In any one classroom there will be a range of ability and experience. Successful students must have access to learning tools that work for them. They must have a connection to the language outside of the classroom. “
Kids have a natural interest in information that comes to them in games or by video. Kit’s program was tremendously successful among kids and their parents at their Spanish class taught this summer at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Md. The students showed Kit and her team firsthand that their variety of products – DVDs, and supplementary workbooks and stickers, as well as their award-winning board game “Dice Off™” – were effective. “The amount the kids learned in the summer class was incredible,” said Diane Oliver, a parent of one of the kids in the class. “My daughter has taken Spanish before, in both fun but more superficial classes and harder but more boring classes, but she never liked it or got much out of it. This all changed with the program by Foreign Languages for Kids by Kids®. After the 3rd class, I was hunting down the instructor…”
Foreign Languages for Kids by Kids® will have after school Spanish classes at some elementary schools and will also be adding online activities to their program.