'Myth' Of Bilingualism Dispelled At This Preschool

Feb 20, 2019

It's 10 o'clock on a Tuesday morning at the LEAP Academy's Nuestra Escuelita, in Durham. That means it's music time. A circle of three- and four-year-olds dance and sing songs.

"Don Alfredo, baila," they sing, their little arms and legs moving in half-coordinated gestures. "Baila, baila, baila!"

The LEAP Academy, a nonprofit, provides the only bilingual pre-Kindergarten in Durham – and at a minimal cost, for low-income families. This site, one of two, runs four mornings a week and instructs students in English and Spanish.

"We are a program that values both, equally," said Dalia Gheiler, LEAP's curriculum coordinator.

On two mornings a week instruction is led by a native Spanish speaker.

"And circle time is in Spanish, the reading is in Spanish, transitions are in Spanish, and most everything is conducted that way," she said. "And then two days, the chief is the teacher who speaks English, and everything is conducted in English."

Preschoolers stretch and do hand movements during circle time at LEAP Academy's Nuestra Escuelita in Durham. Most of the program's students come from Spanish-speaking families.
Credit Lisa Philip / WUNC

The idea is to give students a firm grounding in their home language, as they learn English. Most students at LEAP are from Spanish-speaking families. That's a rapidly-growing demographic in the Triangle.

Across North Carolina, the number of young children who speak a language other than English at home has exploded. Just 33 percent of these kids are enrolled in pre-Kindergarten, according to a 2015 report from the Migration Policy Institute. And research has shown these students in particular benefit from it, especially from programs that are bilingual.

"When you have a word in Spanish, you can have an image in Spanish in your head, and then you can translate to English," Gheiler said. "But if you don't, then you have to learn the concept in both languages."

The thinking on this has evolved in recent years. As Fred Genesee explained, researchers once worried that learning two languages would confuse young children. Genesee is a professor of psychology at McGill University and has studied multilingualism in children for decades.

"From an adult point of view, it may appear challenging to learn another language or to learn two languages," Genesee said. "But that doesn't necessarily mean that that's the way children experience it, and it doesn't necessarily mean that that's the way the brains of infants and toddlers are functioning."

Genesee and other researchers have found that young children who are bilingual develop skills, like babbling and stringing together words into sentences, at about the same pace as children who speak one language.

"There's a myth that children will do better at learning English as a second language if they abandon Spanish or another home language," said Genesee. "But the evidence doesn't support that. The evidence says that the first language, the language that they're first exposed to during the first year, is a really important foundation for acquisition of a new language."

A preschooler asks a teacher at the LEAP Academy's Nuestra Escuelita in Durham for help.
Credit Lisa Philip / WUNC

Genesee and the staff at LEAP say there's another, perhaps more important benefit to bilingual learning: It preserves cultural identity.

"Many of our families are afraid to speak to their children in Spanish or to read a book to their children in Spanish, because they want their kids so badly to learn English," said Leigh Bordley, LEAP's executive director.

She said part of what the LEAP community does "is affirm that this is a beautiful, wonderful, rich language, you speak it beautifully. Do that. Teach your child your family's language. We will teach your child English through play, and through stories, and through what we do here at school."

As an immigrant herself, Gheiler, LEAP's curriculum coordinator, said she knows firsthand the importance of linguistic ties.

"Those children who don't speak either language well, they're in no one's land culturally," she said. "I mean, they can't really communicate with their family members, and feel part of that community. And they're not in that community either, so they're…"

Her voice trailed off, and Bordley chimed in: "They're lost."

By building a strong foundation in both Spanish and English, Bordley and Gheiler hope their students will avoid that no man's land – and stay rooted in their own communities as they reach out into new ones.