Michael, Jake and Caroline Staiano, ages 8, 6 and 3, are typical of many American kids living in Bergen County. They were born and raised in Ridgewood, they're friendly with kids from school and they enjoy lots of quality time with their grandparents, who live nearby. But there's something about them that's less typical. They're bilingual, or at the very least, on their way to becoming so.
Their second language? Russian.
The trio's mother, Marina Staiano, hails from Russia, and although she married an American and settled into suburban life in Bergen many years ago, she wanted to be sure her kids felt an authentic connection to her (and their) Russian heritage. So she enrolled each child in language classes beginning at age 3 and has supported their language and cultural development ever since.
"It's very important to know your background," Staiano says. "I always knew I wanted to keep my Russian heritage going. So I speak Russian at home as much as I can, and they take classes once a week."
All three kids are enrolled at the Berlitz Language Center in Ridgewood, where they take Russian and Spanish. Thanks to a complete immersion philosophy – instead of translating words directly to or from English, Berlitz instructors help kids discover meanings of words naturally, similar to how we learn our first language – the kids have become so familiar with Russian that they can carry on conversations with their Russian grandparents.
In addition to developing fluency, the formal instruction has given the kids a strong understanding of their heritage.
"Their teacher is from Russia and brings in books with pictures of things from Russia, like palaces, schools she went to and foods on a typical Russian table," Staiano says.
The lessons are presented in a playful, hands-on way specifically tailored for kids. They sing songs, learn dances and taste an array of traditional foods.
A bonus, she says, is that the kids learn from other students at Berlitz with different cultural backgrounds. There are kids taking Spanish, French and Mandarin, and even though they're in other language groups, they come together for snack breaks and participate in cross-cultural performances and celebrations.
"They hear different languages now, which gives them a global understanding," she says.
For Alisa Sakai-Chen, an international education for her children has been priceless. Though her parents are both Japanese, she was born and raised in New Jersey and New York and therefore had limited exposure to the cultural elements of Japan. Her two daughters, ages 5 and 2, are enrolled at the International Academy of Arts and Sciences (IAAS) in Closter. The school started as a resource for Japanese ex-pats and has grown into one that offers a full-time international curriculum as well as a Saturday Japanese and Chinese language program tailored to American children in international families.
"The school has given me access to relive the childhood that I never had," Sakai-Chen says. "I'm learning through the kids all of the different songs that I would've been learning had I been raised in Japan."
Her husband, who is Chinese-American, has learned the language as well, but she says the girls have already started to correct his Japanese. Soon they will also take Mandarin classes, which will add another level to their multicultural understanding.
Sakai-Chen notes that IAAS is unique in its dedication to a diverse international approach. There are students of many different backgrounds, from Spanish to Korean to Japanese, and every month the school introduces a new country theme. For example, if the current month's theme is France, every student will learn about the French culture, sing and dance to traditional songs, and dine on croissants and escargot.
"It's a place where the whole world seems to converge in a relaxed and comfortable way," she says.
Barbara Lester understands the importance of keeping a family heritage alive. She is the principal of German Language School Westwood (GLSW), a non-profit school with about 200 children and adults enrolled in Saturday classes.
"Families come to us hoping to keep that heritage alive," she says.
But it's not only families who see the importance of keeping the connection strong. GLSW is closely aligned with Germany's Department of Education, Lester explains, which has granted GLSW the designation of Pasch-Schule, which means "School: Partners for the Future."
"Germany has a big interest in keeping the language and heritage alive," Lester explains. "They have consultants in the United States and they have guidelines that we follow. The consultants visit our school and have workshops in different states that our teachers attend." That helps teachers stay updated on what's new and current in German culture.
In addition to acquiring language skills, students at GLSW become immersed in German traditions. At the beginning of the school year, they receive a cornucopia-like cone, which is an old tradition that began in Germany in the 19th century. Throughout the year, they celebrate holidays simultaneously with Germany's big celebrations, like Oktoberfest, which enjoys a big to-do in Munich.
Not every student at GLSW is a child. While the kids are in classes, some of their parents are down the hall, whether it's a non-German parent learning the basics or a fluent German speaker who has moved on to advanced courses such as German literature. For many, the Saturday program is a family affair that carries over at home and often continues with summer vacations.
"Every year the kids realize that they know so much more," Lester says. "Many go back to Germany in the summer or stay with grandparents or go away to school. When they come back, they say, 'I can talk to the kids on the playground over there!"
Learn It Best
• Start now: The younger kids are, the more easily they tend to pick up new languages.
• Make it fun: Classes that incorporate music, food and celebrations are more engaging than a by-the-book approach.
• Bring it home: If you reinforce what they're learning at school by using the language at home (at least sometimes), it's more likely to stick.
• Travel there: Take a family vacation to a destination where kids can hear the language they're learning and try their skills on native speakers.
Learn It Here
Berlitz Language Center
berlitz.us/ridgewood, (888) 389-0452
International Academy of Arts and Sciences (IAAS)
iaasnj.org, (201) 767-1144
German Language School Westwood (GLSW)
germanschoolnj.org, (201) 825-9770
Gainville Learning Center & Café
gainville.net, (201) 507-1800
Learn Italian with Vincenza
Upper Saddle River
italianwithvincenza.com (201) 995-9532
Language Workshop for Children
Ridgewood and Montclair locations