When tykes speak in tongues




By Sharmila Ganesan Ram

  To give them a leg up in life, parents are enrolling young children in foreign language courses.

Hola’, chirps the bunch of eight to twelve-year-olds as they file into an Andheri classroom on a rainy Wednesday. It’s a colourful room with two flamenco dancer dolls standing atop a DVD player, as if waiting for the music to begin. Below, singer Enrique Iglesias stares from a music CD, mole intact. Picture books with cuddly bears on the cover line the window sill. And, in the front, a teacher holds aloft a giant alphabet board.

“Cha?” she asks. “Chocolat,” they reply. The boys in the back row then beg for a competition with the girls in front. “What do you call an engineer?” the teacher quizzes the eager boys. They clearly don’t know but exchange cocky smiles and prompt, “Engineero?” Clearly, it’s an old trick for this lot and it turns out to be right.

After all, they are learning a language in which “most words end with an O or an A,” says Dinesh Govindani, standing near a door that says bano – Spanish for toilet. Govindani, who has been running Academia De Español, a Spanish language class along with his wife, is one of many foreign language teachers who have been witnessing a new profile of students. These include tykes so young, their legs dangle from the benches.

In fact, Thane-based Ganesh Iyer, founder of Iyer’s Academy of Foreign languages, recently received a call from the mother of a one-year-old. She wanted a French tutor for her kid. When Iyer tried reasoning that it’s too early, she replied, “That’s alright. I don’t mind if someone merely comes and sings even. I just want him to hear the words. ”

The combined lure of good IB schools and the prospect of better jobs are making parents enroll their kids in foreign langauge classes early. “It has become very important for kids to know a foreign language, especially in the face of competition from international boards,” says Kamala Sailapathy, who now runs all the Spanish words in Dan Brown and Agatha Christie books by her 11-year-old son Arjun. “He even translated the Spanish name of a hotel in Goa we stayed in, ” beams Sailapathy.

French and German, of course, are among the most preferred languages for kids as “they are closer to English, ” says Sameer Damle, who teaches German. Shilpa Kher enrolled both her sons, Rushikesh and Siddharth for German classes in Vile Parle recently chiefly driven by the family’s frequent trips to Europe. Besides European languages, Mandarin too is gaining in popularity as “people are realising China’s potential as the next superpower,” says Nishit Shah, who manages the Language Mall, a foreign language institute in Matunga.

The trend of starting young has many arguments in its favour. Kids tend to be more attuned to slight differences in tone and sound, making it easier for them to master the accent too. Numerous studies have shown that speaking a second language builds cognitive, memory and listening skills. “Children are generally more curious and don’t forget easily, ” says Prajakta Paranjpe, who runs a foreign language class in Vile Parle.

Teachers, who introduce languages to kids through role-playing games, interactive CDs and comic books, also tend to enjoy the vibe of this younger class more. Adults, especially those training to embellish their resume, obsess over rules of grammar and technicalities, says Nishit Shah. Kids, on the other hand, come without an agenda. Their enthusiasm rubs off on teachers too. Spanish teacher Deepali Javale has had her students come up to her and confess that they can now follow their favourite character Dora, the explorer, when she lapses into Spanish. “Some even ask, ‘How do I say I love you to my mother’, ” laughs Javale, who teaches Spanish by singing and playing games such as Hangman.

Parents, of course, love it when their kids speak a language they don’t understand. Yogini Patwardhan, whose 11-year-old son Siddharth underwent a onemonth crash course in French, says the experience has contributed to his curiosity. “He tends to compare words in English and French, and asks why some letters in words such as ‘cent’ are silent, ” says Patwardan, adding that her son even prepared a greeting card in French for his teacher as she was getting engaged.

Bragging rights are another happy sideeffect. Juhu’s Aparna Pathak had cajoled her 13-year-old son Aanjanay into learning Spanish along with her as the family is migrating to Georgia, which has a large population of Latin Americans. Though it was against her son’s will, he seems to enjoy it now. “It is a difficult language as the words change according to first and second person. But I love showing off to my friends, ” says the bespectacled boy who purposely launches into a full-fledged Spanish monologue with unsuspecting friends. “They use Google translator just to be able to shut me up,” he laughs.

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