BEIRUT: It is still early in the morning, but the children at the lou&lo preschool in Hamra's Wardieh district are already very busy. In the school's various motor, language, art and music centers different groups of girls and boys aged 10 months to 3 years identify the colors of their modeling clay in French and the days of the week in English, and sing songs in both languages.
In the cooking center, Mia and Samir ask for more cornflakes and milk in French, while two of their friends who have just arrived are being welcomed in English.
It is hard to imagine the complex and important processes by which the brains of these young children are developing. Not only are they still learning their mother tongue, Arabic, but at the same time they are already learning a second language - English or French.
The oldest of the children at lou&lo will start going to one of Lebanon's kindergartens in a few days, where learning English or French as a second language is obligatory.
While in Europe new scientific research about the benefits of learning a second language at an early age is beginning to trigger reforms in school systems, bilingual and even multilingual education has a long tradition in Lebanon.
The importance of learning foreign languages in Lebanon's schools resulted in part from the pervasive presence of foreign powers that have for many years influenced the Lebanese school system.
French and Italian Jesuits and British and American Presbyterians who arrived in the early 1800s were responsible for shaping Lebanon's modern system of higher education. Under the French Mandate the school system was restructured again, with a French-language requirement.
While French is still the most important second language being taught at Lebanese schools today, it has been losing ground to English, which has become more important as a "language of status" and business.
According to statistics from the Education Ministry, 62.5 percent of all Lebanese schools offered French as a second language in the school year 1999-2000. This number decreased to 55.8 percent in 2005-2006. During the same period, schools offering English increased from 19.7 percent to 21.6 percent.
The number of schools offering both English and French has also increased. In 1999-2000 17.8 percent of the schools offered both languages; by 2005-2006 that figure had grown to 22.6 percent.
With the increased importance of English, the number of children who attend tri- and multilingual schools as well as preschools has also increased, speech therapist Wissam Chidiak tells The Daily Star.
Dima Sinno, who founded lou&lo preschool with her mother, noticed the same trend.
"Parents realize that English is getting more and more important in a globalized world, but at the same time, they don't want their children to lose the French language," she says.
Rita Merhej, a clinical psychologist and specialist in developmental disabilities, is very enthusiastic about this development. She compared the brains of little children to little sponges that suck up languages much easier than adults' brain. Even exposing a newborn to many languages won't hurt, she said.
"Imagine a two-and-a-half year old toddler who is able to communicate in three different linguistic codes, even though they are not perfect. Imagine a child who can watch cartoons in English, then switch to a French channel and at the same time talk to his parents in Arabic," Merhej says.
She also stressed that a child, by learning different languages, not only learns languages, but also develops other intellectual and social skills.
Asked about the dangers of exposing a child to too many different languages, Merhej said that there are hardly any. She contended that in the case of a delay in language development, the reason is probably not due to the exposure to many different languages, but to, for example, a hearing problem or the fact that the child has not been talked to enough at home.
"If there is a delay, it is mostly not significant and can quickly be made up, given the child is physically healthy and has a normal level of intelligence," Merhej said.
Chidiak was less enthusiastic. Exposing children too early to too many different languages might cause problems for the child, he said.
"For some kids it is just too heavy if they have to learn two foreign languages in kindergarten or even earlier, and this does cause problems," he said, adding that the consequences of these excessive demands might be that the child decides not to talk at all.
"This is why we recommend parents whose child decides not to talk to use one language only until the child starts talking again," Chidiak said.
He also criticized kindergartens that expect children to have some knowledge of a second language prior to enrollment in classes.
Consequences of a delay in language development are mainly social, Chidiak explained, because language is the bridge between the individual and society. Children who can't express themselves linguistically, be it in one or two languages, can start to become violent, he said. Badly developed language skills will sooner or later lead to learning difficulties, he added.
However, Chidiak noted that after the age of 18 months - the age at which most children are capable of expressing themselves with an acceptable number of words in a single language - it should be safe for them to start listening to and learning a foreign language.
Although the two experts disagreed on certain points, they agreed on what can be done at home as well as in preschool or kindergarten to prevent any problems in child linguistic development.
Both experts stressed the importance of human contact, adding that TV cannot replace real human beings. Additionally, they said that at home, as well as in preschool and kindergarten, one person should not speak more than one language at a time, so that the child can separate visually the sources of each language. Furthermore, the specialists agreed that the language a child learns must be spoken correctly, since children learn by imitating.
In this regard, they each pointed to the problem of children being raised primarily by foreign nannies instead of their parents, a phenomenon which has increased in recent years. Both agreed that children who are raised by nannies who mix incorrect usages of Arabic, English or French, show delays in their linguistic development.
In addition, they highlighted the importance of environment in early childhood linguistic growth - too much noise, too many people and too many toys may lead to too much sensory stimulation and distract the child from learning and hamper his or her development. Merhej also stressed the importance of books; her schoolchildren are read to several times a day.
The children at lou&lo seem to care little about expert opinions. For them, learning language is just a part of their daily games.