INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Squeezing the base of an inflated blue balloon, a French instructor counts its launch — “un, deux, trios” — with his two pupils reciting along. As the balloon soars in the air, deflating, its young onlookers issue laughs.
Using games, toys and music, the Incline Village-based Tahoe Foreign Language Center is helping teach young children new languages in small classroom settings.
“I want them to feel like they’re coming to play, but they pick up language that way,” said Joyce Hugar, co-owner of the center.
Hugar and her husband, Tom Hugar, founded Tahoe Foreign Language Center in 2009 after moving to the area from Taiwan, with the idea to teach Mandarin.
Today, she — the Mandarin instructor — along with a French instructor and two Spanish instructors help teach more than 50 students those foreign languages. Students are mostly children, but the center caters to all ages.
“Where do I start?” asked Frank Desgoutte, the center’s native French instructor, when asked what’s the most rewarding part about teaching his young students. “I guess when they start trying to speak to me in French.”
During a recent morning class, Desgoutte’s two pupils —Nadia Allen, 4, and her brother Lorenzo, 3 — also uttered phrases such as “bonjour” (hello) and “s’il vous plaît” (if you please) while playing with balloons and building blocks.
Other words and phrases they are learning include animals and parts of the face and body, said their mother, Sarah Allen, of Reno.
“It’s been such a success,” she said. “They’re really learning.”
Tahoe Foreign Language Center keeps its class sizes small, offering one-on-one lessons at $35 an hour; private group classes at $20 a student plus a $10 hourly fee; and regular group classes at $20 an hour per student, averaging between three and six students.
“I think it’s perfect because it gives each child a chance to practice the words, and I think Joyce has the opportunity to get to know each child more, as well,” said Anne Silvern, of Carnelian Bay, whose two children take Mandarin at the center. “(Joyce gets) to see what their needs are, where they are in their progress and their development of the language.”
Abby Gerken, of Zephyr Cove, whose children are also learning Mandarin, said they are happy to share what they’ve learned in class with the rest of the family.
“I love it when the dads get to see (what they’re learning) because we’re here all the time, so we see more of their usage, but when you’re at the dinner table, and your kids start speaking Chinese to each other, it just blows them (dads) away,” Gerken said.
Joyce, who has been teaching foreign language for over 15 years, said young children are more adept to learning a new language.
“The younger they are, the quicker it is (to learn),” added Desgoutte. “To them, it’s just another way to say something.”
Studies show children who learn another language at an early age have better reading skills than their monolingual counterparts, perform better in school and score higher on tests, Joyce said.
“They say your brain is kind of like a muscle, so when you are learning languages, you’re flexing and you’re building up muscles,” Joyce said. “If you’re learning a new language, you’re kind of taking your brain to the gym.”
Joyce’s goal is for students to be able to hold small conversations and to read and write some in their language of study.
But the center is teaching its students more than just a new language, Silvern pointed out.
“It gives the kids a lot more cultural understanding and acceptance,” she said, adding that it also gives children an opportunity to socialize with their peers.
Over the summer, Tahoe Foreign Language Center offers a science camp where children perform experiments; an art class where students create collages, watercolor paintings and paint etchings; and guitar classes instructed by Desgoutte, along with language classes.
“I’m just so impressed and so thankful that she (Joyce) has opened up this center,” Silvern said. “… I’m just so excited for my kids to have this opportunity up in Tahoe.”
“If you’re learning a new language, you’re kind of taking your brain to the gym.”
Co-owner, Tahoe Foreign Language Center