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French by Association: Life-long Benefits of Language Learning

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Live & Learn
By: Amber Smith-Lopata    |   July 6, 2022


French by association. That is how I would identify myself. I am not actually French at all; however, the universe chose French as my personal love language, and I have been powerless against (and so grateful for) it. By learning the French language and being immersed in its delicious culture, I have been able to fall in love with and build a life around something that would have never been available to me on a typical American, monolingual trajectory. Here’s what I mean...

I was born to two midwestern, blue-collar kids in Detroit, Michigan. My construction worker father, in search of work, saddled us up in our 1960s VW bus and we set out for “The West,” where construction could take place 12 months of the year! We settled in a suburb of Los Angeles when I was three years old and lived a very modest American life.

I remember at the end of my kindergarten year, we made “Dream Books” for our parents as mementos. The teachers prompted us with all sorts of cute questions about our hypothetical futures based on our vast five years of experience living in the world. When my teachers asked me, “Where will you live when you grow up?,” I quickly replied, “Paris, France.” I can’t even remember why I said it or how I knew Paris, France even existed at that time. Needless to say, my parents were perplexed when I brought my little book home to share, and it became a family joke that little Ambi was certainly “French in a past life.”

Fast forward to my high school years, where I had long forgotten about my imaginary ties to The City of Light. At that time, all my best friends were from Spanish-speaking families and so when I was asked to sign up for a required foreign language, I excitedly requested Spanish! Due to an impacted class situation, I was denied and enrolled in French instead. I was disappointed but carried on without an alternative option. What came next was pure magic.

I quickly latched on to the culture and language thanks to the engaging and amicable French teacher I was assigned. She had lived in France. She spoke of her adventures, the food, the culture, the art. As someone who had never traveled outside of my two home states, let alone to a foreign country, I was obsessed with “the other.” I enthusiastically became the president of the French Club on campus, watched countless French films and fundraised my way to a summer homestay in France following my junior year. Those six weeks would forever change my life. I was head over heels, and irreversibly, in love.

At this point my French language proficiency was mediocre. I tried, but the confines of my well-defined English language skills were a hindrance; it was hard to deconstruct my language knowledge. Additionally, my subconscious fear of failure kept me from really “flying” as I would rather not try than put myself out there and mess up. However, when the following year brought a handsome French foreign exchange student to my school, my determination to master French grew exponentially. Love, after all, is the world’s most powerful motivator!

I now sit here typing out this article in hopes of letting parents know what a lasting, powerful, and magical gift a foreign language is for our children. I am now married to that adorable French foreign exchange student, fluent in French, raising three bilingual boys, and own two French immersion preschools. I can also tell you firsthand that any and all of the struggles I had to overcome in learning a second language are almost non-existent to young children. The confines of their maternal language rules, those fears of “messing it up,” simply do not befall them! Here’s why you need a foreign language in your child’s early experiences:

Young children are natural decoders. They come into this world wired to find meaning, learn language, read context and build skills. They do this at a rate that is neurologically explosive in the first years of life. They are quite literally born to decode.

When my children were born, we decided to raise them to be bilingual, with (almost) equal access to both English (from me, their mother) and French from their father. We weren’t perfectly neat and tidy about it, but we made sure to expose them to French as much as possible. When I witnessed their effortless way of learning both languages, I was so awestruck that I switched from my original plan, which was to teach high school French, and instead decided to teach French to preschoolers. Their ability being so pure and natural, I knew that a language immersion preschool was where I would find my passion. And I did!

Since I opened our first Le Petit Jardin location in 2008, I have been able to witness the miracle that has been captured in language acquisition research studies for decades. The cognitive advantages of learning a second language are: complex problem-solving ability, multi-angle perspective, and elevated verbal and lexical ability in the maternal tongue! As far as executive function is concerned, “which is what allows you to focus on problem solving, moving between tasks, and recalling words and information. All are keys to being successful in life.” (Education Week, 2016), there are numerous benefits, including better overall attention and focus, as well as memory and recall. It has recently been found that multilinguals have better brain health and are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s, or at least not as early on, as their monolingual peers (New York Times, 2011).

Aside from the impressive cognitive boost we are given when we learn a second language, there are less talked-about socio-emotional benefits. Bilinguals are more apt to have elevated empathy, situational awareness, social intelligence, multi-cultural tolerance, patience, and emotional regulation. These traits stem from being in an immersive environment that lends itself to really needing to understand what someone is expressing. That understanding comes from tuning into not only someone’s language, but their intent that can be decoded via their expressions, emotions, gestures and intonation. They must also exercise patience and empathy when they witness someone working with effort to express themselves in a language that is not their maternal language, as well as knowing what their own trials feel like as they work to understand and express themselves in a new language or situation. 

“Early language exposure is essential to developing a formal language system but may not be sufficient for communicating effectively. To understand a speaker’s intention, one must take the speaker’s perspective” (PubMed, National Library of Medicine, 2015).

I had no idea where my predestined love for French would lead me. The things I have been able to learn and uncover over the course of the last 30 years are incredible! I would encourage you to explore the possibilities of enrolling your child in a language immersion program if you are able. The delightful doors that are opened with each new language and culture are countless and the cognitive, social, and emotional benefits are some of the most important gifts I could ever imagine bestowing upon any child.

Amber is founder, director, and a lead teacher at Le Petit Jardin Preschools, of which there are two campuses located in Sonoma and Marin counties. Outside of being a mother of three boys, her experiences include many years as an au-pair, chaperone and board member of F.A.C.E. (French American Cultural Exchange program) and primary grades teacher’s assistant. She holds a bachelor’s degree in French and Francophone Studies from San Diego State University and Early Childhood Education Administrative Certificate from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, CA. She is credentialed by The State of California in Early Childhood Ed. Administration. She spends time each year in France with her native French husband and three sons. Her favorite pastimes are traveling and going on picnics.

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