Meet your neighbor... Caryn Antonini, New Canaan mom who developed language program
NEW CANAAN — As far back into her childhood as she can remember, Caryn Antonini has always been passionate about language.
It’s a passion that she is now — through her childhood language program, Early Lingo — able to share. Early Lingo is a language-learning system that combines videos, workbooks and an interactive app to help children learn one of five different languages — English, Spanish, Mandarin, French and German — using a technique called “total immersion,” wherein translations are foregone and instead children are exposed to the language with vocabulary shown in the context of the app.
Antonini, a mother of two boys, ages 4 and 7, has expanded the program in the roughly five years since its launch. She’s written a curriculum to accompany the learning system and has partnered with schools in Fiji, Los Angeles, Calif. and, closer to home, New Canaan Country School.
Q: When did your interest in foreign languages begin?
A: I had grown up in New Canaan speaking foreign languages and developed an interest, which was kind of unusual back then. My dad speaks several languages and we went with him when we could when he traveled overseas for work. So I took a big interest in different cultures as well.
I ultimately went to Georgetown University, where I studied languages, and I’ve always loved kids, so I started studying children’s acquisition of language and to me it was fascinating.
Q: What languages were spoken at home?
A: My dad speaks Italian, so he taught me Italian. And we had a lot of visitors from overseas because my parents would entertain people my dad worked with. So I started learning Portuguese, though I wouldn’t claim that as one of my languages. But definitely Spanish, as well.
And then I started studying French at school. I would get tapes; I would get books; I would ask my dad when he’d travel overseas, “Can you bring me back children’s books?” Then I would translate. I didn’t care what language, it was just fun for me.
Q: At what point did you decide to develop a language-learning program for children?
A: In school I learned amazing things, like how babies babble using up to 70 different sounds which make up the 600-plus languages of the world and that they’ll store another language in the same area of the brain as their native tongue. So I thought the ideal time to learn is in early childhood.
I graduated and after about a year started thinking, “What can I do to make a difference with language?” I started kind of mapping it out at night, after work. But it was different, it was more like a software program at the time.
Then I met a woman, who was a Georgetown grad as well, who wanted to co-produce this with me. She was really excited about it, but a couple months later a movie of hers was green-lit, so she said, “Let’s back-burner this.” At the time I didn’t know how to put all the pieces together, so for about eight years we did.
Around 2011, I was in Italy and had another business at the time and was kind of looking for the next path. I was telling a friend about this language program and he said, “This is what you should be doing.” I thought, “You’re right, this is it. Now is the time.”
Q: When was the curriculum created? How does Early Lingo work?
A: In 2012, the founder of Fiji Water, who was my parents’ neighbor in Florida said, “This is great. I want to buy these for the kids in Fiji.” His only concern was there was no curriculum. So I said, “Give me a few months and I’ll create something you’re going to love.” So I created a curriculum, in addition to DVDs and books, and he approved it.
We pitched it to the Ministry of Education in Fiji and did a test launch in five schools. They approved it.
After that is when I said it’s time to digitize my program. That was the way to go and for kids who have access to technology it’s amazing. It’s that interactive, fun, entertaining feel that I originally wanted, so that’s when I created the app. Now we’ve integrated the videos into the app. We couldn’t rely on children to just go watch the video and then do the lessons. It was too dry.
So they’ll watch part of the video, and then they’ll have what we call the workbooks, but they’re really just fun, educational lessons for the kids. The lessons build upon themselves, so the child couldn’t access the third adventure or second adventure until they’d completed the first.
Q: What are some of the benefits of being multilingual?
A: It really helps children with executive functioning. They learn to think outside of the box. There are actual neural pathways that are formed when you learn another language, so their brain literally will begin to think in a different way. They tend to be more creative and multilingual students generally have higher scores on standardized tests.
There are health benefits as well. It staves off Alzheimer’s (Disease) and it helps with stroke recovery later in life.
And then of course, multilingual people in the workforce are needed. It’s a huge asset to speak another language.
Q: Have your sons been helpful in developing the program?
A: Yes. I give the app to their friends, I give it to them and see how if they’re engaged or not. It’s like having a little lab in my house.
Q: What is the premise of your Young Global Citizens initiative?
A: My mission is to see that our future generations are bilingual and also globally aware. I feel like language and culture are inextricably linked. When a child learns Spanish, for instance, they’re going to be more accepting of Spanish culture and are more likely to take an interest in it. I feel bilingual children will make the world a better place because language is a pathway to peace.
It’s really so important, especially in this day and age with our world becoming so much smaller. Communication, empathy and respect are really the three components. Just having respect and celebrating the differences instead of looking and thinking, “That’s really weird.” It’s not weird, it’s just different to you.