What prompted you to start, thirty-five years ago, developing language programs for young children?
I grew up in Paris, and I went to a boarding school at an early age. We had people from all over the world – Chinese, Vietnamese, North African, Spanish, Portuguese – and the children were speaking French during the week. Then when the parents would come to pick them up on Saturdays, they would start speaking another language, sometimes translating for their parents. I thought that there was something magical about that.
And that’s possible even for tiny babies?
Yes – absolutely. We start at six months. When you think about it, at nine months, a child can already discriminate between the sounds that he has heard since birth and the sounds that are new. So, to an American newborn, Chinese is no different from English, Hebrew or any other language. But by age three, you can no longer say Chinese is as easy as English. A newborn who spends part of the time with his mother who only speaks English, part of the time with his father who only speaks Chinese, and part of the time with a babysitter who only speaks Portuguese, will end up speaking all these languages – without any class, without any lessons.
I’ve heard anecdotes about children getting confused about which language they’re speaking and mixing words up, especially after watching Dora the Explorer.
Yes. From what I understand, Dora is in English, but they throw in some Spanish words. Professor Toto is entirely in the target language. We are against mixing languages. We don’t think that it’s a good idea to speak with a child in English and throw in some Spanish words from time to time. By mixing two languages, the child is not going to benefit from it as much. He or she may remember a few words, but will not really end up speaking as well as if he were totally immersed.
How did you develop the Professor Toto line?
When I started, I thought that just reading books in another language helps children learn. But I realized that that’s not the case, because their parents are American parents. So reading books in another language is probably great for children whose parents speak the target language with the proper accent. But it’s detrimental to the American child who is being read the story with the improper accent. That’s why I developed specific books and CDs to reinforce at home what they learn in class. Our books for the very young children don’t actually have any words. They have pictures, and then the children listen to the CDs, so they have no way to mispronounce a word, because it is not read to them, they are just listening to it.