Nap Time and Playtime And Time to Learn Farsi

Seema Tabatabaei reads to her day-care charges at her home in Sterling. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Delphine Schrank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 24, 2007

At 2 years old, Lanah Boissy has perfected the art of linguistic one-upmanship. Perched in a highchair at dinnertime in Sterling, she will say something in Farsi, wait for a look of bafflement from her Senegal-born parents and dissolve into giggles when they are forced to ask if she would please translate into English or their native French.

In Ashburn, Cenna Cripe, 21 months, will pucker up on cue, but only if her English-speaking mother, Christie, says "hati bossa" -- an Arabic request for a kiss. And in Annandale, Sasha Geisinger, 2, disappointed her mother somewhat when one of the first words out of her mouth was "dudu." Then Narra Geisinger learned that Sasha was using the Urdu word for milk.

Children such as these in the polyglot Washington region often surprise their parents with language feats learned in day care. The large number of foreign-born care providers in the area enables many parents to kick-start their children's knowledge of a second or even a third language from among a growing babel that includes Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, Hindi and Amharic, in addition to French and Spanish.

It's a mutually beneficial arrangement, providers and parents say. Some immigrant women find that running a day-care center offers steady income, allowing them to work at home while imparting their culture and language to young children.

"Kids are like sponges," said Omayma Eltayeh, a Sudanese-Egyptian day-care provider in Ashburn whose anarchic clients, all 5 or younger, fall to attention when she commands them in Arabic to sit down, give a hug or eat their couscous. They learn by osmosis when Eltayeh lapses into her native tongue. From her Guatemalan assistant, Adela, they get more formal Spanish instruction in counting, shapes and colors.

"It's good to start them early," said Debbie Harris, whose 2-year-old daughter, Ella, is among Eltayeh's quickest learners. Harris, whose college minor was Spanish, said she knows how tricky it can be to acquire a language later in life.

Even if Ella doesn't pursue Arabic in school, exposure to the ways of an Islamic household is a plus, Harris said. Eltayeh, a Muslim, likes to explain to parents why she wears a head scarf and stops for prayer five times a day. To children, she offers more subtle cultural lessons: Her emphasis on manners draws directly from her family and her religious values, Eltayeh said.

Sometimes the language know-how sticks beyond day care. Lessons at the home of Bolivian provider Marcela Escobar in Springfield inspired the parents of an enthusiastic former client, Jessica Manning, to place her in a Spanish immersion program. Another client, Lizzie Hicks, 3, might not be far behind. According to her mother, Lizzie recently sang a strange tune to her little sister, Megan. Escobar later said it was a Bolivian lullaby about blue eyes.

Experts caution that the academic benefits of bilingual or multilingual day care should not be overstated. The quality of in-home care varies widely. So do licensing requirements. Sometimes, the care is more about babysitting than education.

"I think the benefits will depend on the quality of the interaction with the teacher," said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Acquiring fluency requires substantial immersion in a language, beyond a few phrases for numbers and colors. Experts say it can make a difference if a provider speaks a language other than English continuously, frequently or only occasionally. But those youngsters who later lose their skill at a second language might find a payoff from early exposure to other cultures.

Data on the number of foreign-born workers in family day care are scarce. But in Northern Virginia, the vast majority of the roughly 1,100 in-home day-care providers affiliated with Infant Toddler Family Day Care, a Fairfax-based group that trains in-home care providers and matches them with parents, speak English as a second language, said the group's associate director, Wynne Busman.

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