Hello world in speech bubbles

"Hello, hello, hello, how are you?” are words to the first song I learned in English. The teacher sang along while we covered our hands in glue from pasting paper drawings on our workbooks. I was 3 years old and attending a bilingual kindergarten in Veracruz, Mexico.

I was blessed to have parents who were quite involved in my education, especially in learning a second language at a very young age. They always looked for schools that not only had an hour of English immersion, but the entire day if possible. As I enrolled in elementary school, it took some experimenting to find the right institution. At first I attended schools that only imparted two hours of English. I remember how much I liked to learn new vocabulary and read from colorful storybooks. I always took my new discoveries very seriously, so much that I began teaching my grandmother English lessons out of my first-grade books.

By the time I was in third grade, we were living in Puebla, Mexico, and I was enrolled in a school where we were taught entirely in English the first or second half of the day. Social studies, health, English grammar and spelling were some of the subjects. I loved the smell of new books and I was thrilled at the thought of mastering the spelling of a new word.

I also remember student competitions where we had to memorize verbs in present, past and past participle. Much of my recollection of verb tenses comes from those days. I still recall learning about joints and muscles and their functions. What I learned in those first formative years laid a strong foundation and a love for learning. I am grateful for my parents’ sacrifice, since attending private bilingual schools is pretty expensive in Mexico. Because of their efforts, I am able to write this article today.

Years later, I came to the United States for a small period of time. It was then that I took a deep dive into the language. Idioms such as “foot in mouth,” “raining cats and dogs” and “pulling a leg” joined my list of discoveries. My father always used to tell me that one day I would see the fruits of the sacrifices made to learn a second language. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I was about to discover an entire world of opportunities.

Learning English as a second language helped my ability to grasp new concepts and retain information at a faster rate. After returning to Mexico, I decided to take French in high school. Having learned English made it easier for me to learn a third language. Many words and sentence structures were similar to Spanish or English.

I continued on to college where I was blessed to receive a scholarship to do an internship in France. The full-immersion experience began for the second time. The fear of not speaking the language did not apply to me. “If I can’t say something in French, I’ll try English or Spanish,” I thought. But the environment forced me to use my French, and although it was challenging at first, my French fluency increased by 50 percent by the end of my five-month stay.

After coming back from France and finishing my college degree, my view of the world changed. I felt like I could conquer anything. I began teaching English as a second language to other college students and business professionals. I enjoyed sharing and learning along with the students. They asked questions that challenged my knowledge, and I liked that.

Teaching English helped me prepare for the TOEFL (test of English as a foreign language) required to apply for American universities. After a couple of practice tests, I was able to get a good score. When I came back to the United States to obtain another college degree, I was able to polish my English skills, and I took some more advanced French classes. It was a whole new experience to attend a French class and observe how American students approached the language.

It was during this time that I began to reflect at a deeper level on the benefits of my foreign language studies. I realized that most of my opportunities in life, whether social, cultural, educational or professional, were tied to my efforts in learning a second and third language. I felt even more grateful to my parents for their encouragement. Thus the following recommendations became stronger convictions for me:

The younger people learn a second language, the better.

The American Council of the Teaching of Foreign Languages and Center for Applied Linguistics say that learning a second language at an early age enriches and enhances a child’s mental development. It also leaves students with more flexibility in thinking, greater sensitivity to language and a better ear for listening. It also improves a child’s understanding of his native language and helps him understand and appreciate people from other cultures.

Take advantage of study abroad opportunities.

The U.S. Institute of International Education says that students who are involved in study abroad programs discover learning in a new way as the higher education systems of other countries differ greatly from those of the United States. This means that they can get a well-rounded education that better prepares them for this increasingly global world. IIE also mentions that students gain foreign language proficiency best when in an environment where the language must be used.

It is never too late to learn a second language.

While it is optimal to start learning a foreign language at an early age, adults should not lose hope to learn. Ken Stewart, 2006 national Language Teacher of the Year, according to the American Council of the Teaching of Foreign Languages, says that one of the life-long benefits of learning another language is that you are always learning, and it keeps the brain actively engaged. Recent studies have connected learning a second language with delaying Alzheimer's disease, for this very reason.

If my grandmother and I were able to learn together when I was 6 years old, I believe anyone can do it. Learning a foreign language requires a great desire and love for a particular language and a good amount of discipline and consistency. It may be challenging at times, but the results are worth every effort.

May Lundy enjoys living in Salt Lake City with her husband, Jon. She works at Deseret Digital Media and currently writes a monthly column for OKEspanol, Spanish language newspaper.