By Delphine Schrank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 24, 2007; A01
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.
Beatriz Otero, president of CentroNia, a District-based family support group that offers early childhood education, said running a day-care business is an excellent steppingstone for immigrant women. "It gives you a certification in a way that few other entry-level jobs do," she said. In the past five years, she added, the group has helped train 800 women, most of them foreign-born, to meet national voluntary accreditation standards, involving hundreds of hours of study and apprenticeship, for early childhood instruction.
Many providers said they have a natural penchant for the job.
"In my country, we know how to take care of children," said Riffat Jabeen, a Falls Church provider from Pakistan. Her English is choppy, so parents such as Geisinger have encouraged her to speak Urdu with their children.
Added Farah Ibrahim, a provider in Leesburg with a pre-med college degree from Pakistan: "You have to have a passion for it, a warmth," which can often come from the experience of living with an extended family. Ibrahim, who emigrated in 1992 to find better prospects for her three children in the United States, worked as a bus driver and a cafeteria hostess before opening a day-care operation to maintain her children's roots and look after other youngsters.
Seema Tabatabaei fled Iran with her husband two decades ago, passing through Bangladesh, Pakistan and Canada before settling in Sterling in 1999. Unable to secure a teaching job despite having Canadian kindergarten qualifications, Tabatabaei worked intermittently as a babysitter until she learned three years ago about acquiring a day-care license.
"Day care was the only way to express my feeling for kids," she said. "And a way of survival. We needed that extra income," and never more so than for the past seven months since her husband, Massood, lost his engineering job. He said he is unlikely to find another until he gets U.S. citizenship.
Now, she teaches Farsi to eight children. She is so successful that Olivier Boissy said he turned down a job in the District so his daughter Lanah could stay with Tabatabaei until she reaches kindergarten.
But it's not always clear how much the kids listen. One recent morning, Miss Seema, as they call her, pulled a book from the shelf and started reading aloud in Farsi about Mimini the monkey. Mali, 3, flung a box of crayons across a puzzle board. Lanah bounced up and down on a miniature sofa. Yasi, 4, airplaned around the room and tore the back off another book.
"They're too excited," Tabatabaei said.
So her husband offered to lull them with the stringed sounds of his ancient Persian tar -- for a brief respite, a different sort of foreign language lesson.
Copyright 2007 The Washington Post Company