WAVERLY, Iowa --- As a Spanish instructor, Amanda Klinkenberg didn't want to wait for her children to sign up for a foreign language class in middle or high school. The Waverly mom decided to pass on her knowledge and love of languages to her kids at a much earlier age.
Unfortunately, her 4-year-old son, Caleb, initially resisted her efforts. When Klinkenberg tried to sing or read to him in Spanish, he used to cry.
This fall, Klinkenberg decided to offer a series of Spanish classes designed for children ages 2-5 and their parents. She hoped the weekly course would be a way to introduce Spanish in a fun, structured environment to children, her son included.
The experiment worked.
Caleb speaks more Spanish at home and his sister, Annalise, 2, also has a grasp on the Spanish words for colors, emotions and family members.
"By introducing it at this age they are sparking the interest, the parents are," said Klinkenberg, an adjunct Spanish instructor at Hawkeye Community College. "Maybe it will be something that captivates (the children) naturally here on out."
On a recent Saturday morning in the basement of St. John Lutheran Church in Waverly, seven toddlers and preschool-age children went on a scavenger hunt. Each child searched the room for a plastic food similar to the one they clutched in their tiny hands.
Klinkenberg and other parents took turns repeating the instructions.
"Dónde está la banana?" "Dónde está el pollo?" "Dónde está el maíz?"
Two-year-old Oscar Leong pretended to nibble on his toy food. When it was his turn, he mimicked Klinkenberg word-for-word. Almost.
"Me gusta --- I'm big --- el tomate," Oscar said.
Mothers who enrolled their children in the class were impressed that children, who are still trying to grasp and speak English are able --- and willing --- to count and repeat simple phrases in Spanish.
"I think it's very good for kids to be exposed to different languages," said Peggy Moklegaard of Waverly.
At age 2, her son, Max, isn't a big talker yet. Moklegaard, who has worked as a speech pathologist, still sees benefits.
"Even if they don't pick up the language it's really good for them to hear the different sounds," Moklegaard said.
Studies indicate children are more receptive and adept at picking up different languages and sounds during a crucial development period. Young ears and tongues are generally better at hearing and in turn pronouncing different sounds, Klinkenberg said.
"They say at 12 is where that door of opportunity closes," said Klinkenberg, who has a bachelor's and master's degree in Spanish teaching from the University of Northern Iowa. "It's better to do immersion-type things before the critical age."
To keep learning fun and light, Klinkenberg used interactive games, songs, art projects, photographs and story books to discuss colors, articles of clothing, emotions and body parts.
Children have an eagerness to learn new things and generally don't question what they are told. While older students may struggle to understand why certain word endings in Spanish are dependent on gender and are baffled by other grammatical and sentence structure differences, its not a concern for younger pupils.
"That's just the beauty of a 4-year-old. They just accept it," Klinkenberg said. "This is a shirt and it's a camisa, too."
Klinkenberg may offer more classes next year depending on interest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.