"Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis," Duncan, 2 1/2 years old, chanted in Spanish -- counting the bear, birds, trains and other objects pictured on the card in front of him, and looking around for approval.
Hunter, 3, was next, pointing to the colorful drawings on his card and counting in French, "Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six. . . ."
Jean-Nicolas, 20 months old, who arrived in January from Montreal and is just beginning to speak his native French, gurgles along in his new foreign tongue -- English.
Meanwhile, Chloe, 3 1/2 , chatters along with all of them, switching from English to Spanish to French and back again.
These children won't be accomplished linguists when they go to school, but they will have an advantage over most of their peers -- early exposure to other languages and cultures.
At Les Bons Enfants Nursery Inc., each child has a daily language session, said Monica Santos, 31, Chloe's mother, who runs the program in her Randallstown-area home. She uses Berlitz children's books, vocabulary cards, tape recordings and stories and songs in French and Spanish.
"That's the way children learn -- 20 minutes a day rather than two one-hour sessions a week, as in most schools," said the former advertising marketing executive. "We try to make it fun for them; they think it's a game."
This early exposure is beneficial because it helps "get children accustomed to the sounds" of different languages, said Dr. Jorge Giro, chairman of the languages department at Towson State University.
And Dr. Frances Bond, associate dean of the TSU College of Education and professor of early childhood, said experiencing other languages and cultures helps to broaden the base of the early (childhood learning) experience.
Chloe has heard several languages from her multilingual parents and other relatives, Ms. Santos said. She opened Les Bons Enfants earlier this year to try to preserve her daughter's polyglot heritage and share it with other children, she said.
And the enthusiastic parents of her young charges said it works.
Michael McCartney, Duncan's father, who works as a television documentary producer, said his son "can count better in Spanish than in English. He gets up to about five in English, but he can count at least to 11 in Spanish. Sometimes, [when he's asked questions in English] he'll answer us in Spanish, like 'gracias,' or 'me llamo Duncan.' " Mr. McCartney said.
Marcia Goldman, Hunter's mother, is corporate communications director for Provident Bank. Her parents, European immigrants, speak several languages, she said, and she studied French and Spanish in high school and college.
"Hunter's very good with languages," Ms. Goldman said, adding that she remembers enough words and phrases from her schooling to use those languages when playing with her son.
Early exposure to other languages "is a great idea. . . . I wish they would start [teaching] them in elementary school here," Ms. Goldman said. "My frustration is that unless you use it, you forget it."
Jean-Nicolas' parents, Dr. Martin Champagne and Christine Champagne, a nurse, are French-Canadian and work at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Dr. Champagne is on a research fellowship.
When Jean-Nicolas arrived in Baltimore he understood only French, but now he also uses some English words, Ms. Champagne said.
"He's come back [from day-care] with 'bubble,' and he's mixing 'mommy' and 'ma-ma,' and 'daddy' and 'pa-pa,' " she said. "It's easier for him because Monica speaks French to him."
Ms. Santos, a native of Ecuador, grew up in New York City speaking Spanish and English. She majored in Romance languages in college and met her husband, Jumi Mohammadioun, while she was studying at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Mr. Mohammadioun, 27, a multilingual American who grew up in France, is a classical-guitar instructor at the Peabody Preparatory School. When he's not teaching, he helps with the children, and is a firm advocate of early language training.
He is also critical of what he calls American "cultural isolationism" from foreign languages. "We thought of ourselves as the premier country, and [thought] that everyone else should speak English," he said.
"Languages are not considered important in this country, and it's hurting us, like the test failures in geography," Mr. Mohammadioun said. "If you don't know where a country is, you can't know anything about its culture or language."
Ms. Santos said, "I started languages in high school, French and Latin; three years of grammar and then they shoot you into literature. I was 20 when I went to France, and I'd had eight years of French in high school and college. But I had to learn it [the language] from scratch because what you learn from a book is not the same."
Their daughter, Chloe, grew conversant in Spanish and French from talking with adult relatives. An aunt of Ms. Santos' from New York who speaks only Spanish was her first baby-sitter. Chloe's parents read stories to her in French.
When the time came for Chloe to go to day care, Ms. Santos had a unique problem. "I didn't want her to lose her Spanish; I called every pre-school in the Baltimore area, but none offered any foreign languages," Ms. Santos said.
Chloe was enrolled in a Carroll County center. Ms. Santos said the pressures of her work became intolerable. "I was fed up with the corporate world, tired of feeling guilty for leaving to pick her up instead of staying to work late every night," she said.
"I didn't want to compromise her future, so I decided to open my own place and offer languages," Ms. Santos said. She is licensed by the state to care for eight children. With the help of a retired businesswoman, she has seven in her care, three of them infants. Another child is to be enrolled next month.
Aside from the languages, Ms. Santos said, she operates her business like any other pre-school care facility, with plenty of activities -- and an afternoon nap. "That's when I catch my breath," she said.