BRANDON — The preschoolers gathered for lessons at Maribel Suardy's apartment are bursting with energy. They're running and yelling. They're excited to see each other. "Sientense," Suardy says. They all sit. The seven children speak English, but not at Suardy's Spanish lessons each Wednesday. They're supposed to speak Spanish — or at least try. "Que color?" she asks, pointing to a yellow piece of paper. Meghan McKinney, 4, thinks. "Amarillo?" Suardy asks. Meghan nods. Dozens of classes in the Tampa Bay area offer children the chance to get a head start on learning a second language. Some are offered at preschools or other formal classrooms, but most are taught by bilingual people at their homes. Posted on Craigslist and spread by word of mouth, the classes help children learn a second language at a critical age.
There are no workbooks at Suardy's "We are Little Amigos" class. The children learn through games, songs and crafts. These classes are fun.
Children learn second languages differently than adults, she said. Three-year-olds don't need grammar lessons in Spanish, just like they don't need them in English yet. If they're young enough, learning a second language is just like learning their first.
The same goes for Helene Goyat's French lessons in north Tampa. She taught a 23-month- old girl vocabulary for whatever she was interested in during class time. If it was books, Goyat pointed to pictures and said the words in French. If it was the lunch her grandma brought for her, they talked about food in French.
"Sometimes she's talkative, sometimes she's not," Goyat said. "Her vocabulary is limited, so you have to stick with what she knows."
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Studies show that children's cognitive development is propelled by learning a second language. One study showed that it helped improve math scores, even when compared with a group of students who spent more time learning math instead of a second language.
Research from the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., suggests that children who learn a second language are better at solving complex problems.
There's some indication that children who are learning two languages have better "metalinguistic awareness," said Barbara Alexander Pan, an education professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. That means they understand the relationship between a word and its meaning is arbitrary and changing its name does not change the object.
While others catch on to that concept eventually, it still helps to learn young. Pan said that younger children have an advantage in learning native-like pronunciation, so their accents sound more authentic.
And there are social benefits, Suardy said.
"It helps them appreciate new and different cultures," she said. "They understand that the world is bigger than their back yards."
If they're able to continue lessons and become proficient, she said, they'll be more marketable to potential employers.
"The Latino market here is huge," she said.
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In Tampa, Inlingua offers language classes for adults and children. Age doesn't matter, as long as the child can sit through the lesson, said regional director Olga-Lucia Posada-Henao.
Inlingua, an international business, has been in the West Shore area for about four years. They contract with native speakers in the area, offering private lessons in Spanish, French, German, Arabic and many other languages.
Though adults are their major client source, Posada-Henao said the best time to learn a language is when you're young.
"You open more doors, intellectually, culturally," she said.
At We are Little Amigos, it's time to act like a bumblebee. The children put on antennae and wave their arms, singing along to a song that Suardy wrote and recorded in a friend's home studio.
"Soy una abeja, soy una abeja, I'm a bumblebee. Me gustan les flores, me gustan les flores. I like flowers."
After acting like butterflies and ants, they do a craft, practice colors and numbers and sing the goodbye song. Adios!
These classes are so important in shaping children's futures, Gayle Dillon McKinney said. She brings her daughter and son, ages 4 and 3, most weeks because she believes Spanish will help them get better jobs and be able to travel easily.
She plans to keep them in Spanish classes. If their elementary schools don't offer them, she'll take them to lessons after school.
"I'm really trying to make sure they learn Spanish," she said. "It's just important to me."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.