Speaking in Tongues

As a little girl in the heart of Africa, Yalibi Marjolaine D’Addario fluently spoke French, Portuguese and Lingala —one of the native languages of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Because I grew up in a culture where speaking more than one language was common, it was the norm,” says D’Addario, who also lived in France and Spain before settling in the United States. She has since added English, Spanish, Italian and Swahili to her linguistic lexicon.

Do the math, and that makes seven languages spoken by D’Addario. This places her in stark contrast with the woeful less than 1 percent of American adults proficient in any one non-English language that they studied in a U.S. classroom, according to a 2015 feature in The Atlantic magazine. This means that creating a bilingual or multilingual “norm” in America rests on teaching our children foreign languages when they are young — and in some cases barely walking.

Three years ago, that’s what D’Addario decided to do. She started teaching languages to five children in a hallway at St. Benedict’s Catholic School. Today, her company, ENB Languages 4 Kidz, teaches 20 students and her summer immersion program enrolls as many as 75 children.

“I have one kid, Jacob, who is very good in French. His parents don’t speak the language, but they buy him books in French, cartoons in French, and they get him music in French. Languages have to be explored outside of the classroom to be successful,” says D’Addario.

ENB Languages 4 Kidz offers instruction in French, Spanish and Italian. D’Addario encourages parents to explore opportunities to learn from native speakers since the public school system can’t offer the same benefits.

“Schools focus on grammar and writing and testing. You don’t learn languages that way. You have to speak it. You have to be exposed to it. Language is communication,” she says. “We have had kids in our program for the full three years, and these kids can have a conversation now. Three years coming once per week and coming during summer camp will get them to that level.”

Raul Echevarria, cofounder and academic director at CommuniKids Preschool and Children’s Language Centers, employs a similar approach, teaching children as young as 18 months to speak in Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and French. In the language immersion preschool, no English is spoken at all.

“It’s not bilingual at all. They hear the language spoken the same they would English at home. They learn Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. The curriculum surrounds learning language through play,” says Echevarria. “By the time these kids go off to kindergarten, they’re multilingual in Chinese and Spanish.”

For children in elementary school, CommuniKids’ after-school program gives them a chance to start or continue learning languages.

“The after-school program is for kids in kindergarten through third grade. The children are picked up from school and bused to our Short Pump location,” says Echevarria.

Children in the Communikids program achieve near-native fluency within three years. Echevarria says the younger a child starts the program, the better, but any child at any age can learn.

“Ideally, parents should enroll their children at 18 months of age. Language is the one cognitive skill that a 2-year-old can do better than a 4-year-old. But even if they come at pre-K, that’s OK. The after-school program gets them over the hump,” he says, adding that “parents can expect a child with functional fluency — they know how to express themselves in a way that’s understood, they can respond, and can translate — in a near native accent.”

Story and photos courtesy of and originally published in Richmond Magazine.