Remind me why we should teach foreign languages in elementary school?

Nineteen years ago I started teaching Spanish to elementary and preschool students in Austin, TX. At the time, I did it because I was asked to by parents. Parents in my neighborhood wanted their children to learn Spanish. I was a certified ELL, bilingual elementary and early childhood teacher, and so I started teaching Spanish to youngsters. This was the beginning of the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum—click here to request a free sample.

I now find myself living and working in a community in Colorado where parents, not schools, are still leading the charge to get their children learning foreign languages in elementary school. I’ve read all the research behind early exposure to second language learning, but it’s been a while and I decided to give myself a refresher lesson. I found no less than dozens of well-documented studies—all pointing to tangible benefits of FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary Schools) programs. I write this as a plea to public school administrators to make early second language programs a priority.

Reason #1 Research says elementary students learn a second language better than older students.

Experts say young children are especially wired to learn foreign languages in the most natural ways, through play and exploration. Research indicates that the brain is at its optimum to learn foreign sounds in children under 10. Students who learn a language early improve their chances for native-like pronunciation and a high level of proficiency later on (www.aatg.org).

On the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL) website, multiple studies (reprinted with permission from the Center for Applied Linguistics) are referenced in support of more effective language learning in younger students. One study shows 11th grade French students with just 80 minutes of instruction per week starting in third grade outperformed another group that started French in 7th grade. The FLES French students’ performance was better in every area. In another study, classes of third-grade children in New York City and suburban New York schools were taught conversational French for 15 minutes daily. After 1 year they were evaluated for French skills. Children were judged to have pronunciation and fluency in French superior to that of high school students with the same amount of instruction. Another study shows FLES students outperforming non-FLES students on AP foreign language exams (www.actfl.org).

How many of us who start studying a foreign language in high school actually become fluent in that language? I don’t know the answer, but I know it’s a slim figure. If we want to produce bilingual citizens, we need to start teaching language earlier.

Reason #2 Research says people who learn another language are smarter.

Multiple studies show that early-start language learning improves cognitive skills and academic performance. Foreign language study contributes to brain development and overall learning. People who learn a second language score higher on reading, verbal fluency, and general intelligence assessments. In fact, the more languages people learn, the higher their scores, with speakers of over four languages scoring consistently higher than any other group. Furthermore, learning a second language improves fluid intelligence and ‘executive functioning,’ because you have to control the two languages you know. While you communicate in one language, you’ve got to manage and control the other language (Kathryn Doyle, Washington Post, June 9, 2014).

The ACTFL website cites multiple studies (again, reprinted with permission from the Center for Applied Linguistics) that support this claim. A study in Cincinnati demonstrated that students involved in a foreign language magnet program (from a broad demographic cross-section) scored well above national norms in reading and mathematics. Another study supported the claim that bilingualism fosters better verbal and spatial abilities. Another study showed improved reading achievement after participation in a voluntary before and after-school FLES program. Another study of 4th graders receiving 20 minutes of Spanish instruction per day showed greater reading, vocabulary, and comprehension on the ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills), while another study showed improved ITBS scores after just 30 minutes of FLES instruction per week. Other studies showed FLES students outperforming non FLES students in divergent thinking ability, IQ tests, SAT math and verbal tests, reading skills, expressive oral productivity, verbal and nonverbal intelligence, math skills, listening skills, speaking skills, writing skills, mental flexibility, and creativity (www.actfl.org).

Why and how does this happen? Children gain a deeper understanding of English as they learn the structure and vocabulary of other languages. This understanding translates into more confidence in English and a greater command of the language. Furthermore, learning a second language fosters a flexibility of thinking that translates into math, creativity, and problem solving. Because students have enjoyed the benefits of early foreign language study, they are less likely to treat language as a meaningless academic requirement later on—instead seeing language as a tool to be used for a wide range of educational applications, career choices, and personal enjoyment. The research is prolific and undeniably in support of the claim that learning a second language in elementary school makes us smarter.

Reason #3 Demographics are changing in our country, and we are now living in multilingual, multi-cultural communities.

Even in rural communities such as mine, this is true. Speaking other languages continues to be an important asset that gains more value with each passing year. Our world is an increasingly interdependent world. We are no longer an isolated country in which there are no tangible benefits to speaking other languages.

When we make second language learning a priority in our elementary schools, we develop a greater openness to other cultures at a younger age. As students learn a foreign language, they learn about the people and countries where the language is spoken—including the history, traditions, customs, and geography of those countries. Learning a second language broadens students’ global awareness and sets the stage for global competency. Students acquire a more global perspective and gain insight into their own language and culture. Studying a second language in elementary school develops an early understanding of the relationship between cultures and languages.

Many developed countries require instruction in one or two foreign languages in elementary school. Slowly, states are starting to recognize the value in this. In 2002 Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, New York, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming all had state mandates for elementary second language study. Indiana, California, and Kansas state governments had policy language that highly encouraged elementary school study of second languages (http://www.ecs.org/html/Document.asp?chouseid=3983 ). In 2008, Utah became the first state to legislate funding for large-scale implementation of dual-language and immersion programs. Delaware has a plan to bring programs to more schools (Michael Alison Chandler, The Washington Post, October 31, 2014). New Jersey provides foreign language instruction in 90% of all public schools, including elementary schools (http://www.state.nj.us/education/aps/cccs/wl/stateofwl.pdf). Despite being a local control state with no state mandates, by 2011 over 215 school districts in Pennsylvania offered FLES programs (http://www.ncssfl.org/). I find this last statistic the most intriguing— a state implementing wide-spread foreign language study at the elementary level not because of a state mandate, but because they recognize that it’s best practice in education. Perhaps it’s most intriguing to me because I too live in a local control state—one that hasn’t been as proactive on a local level as Pennsylvania. Perhaps Pennsylvania can serve as a model for Colorado to use local control to implement best practice in our public elementary schools.

After teaching Spanish to children for most of my adult life, I decided to write this blog to remind myself why I do this. Early language learning contributes to learning languages better, higher performance in all academic areas, and most important, a lifelong ability to communicate effectively. Parents want this for their children. Perhaps the question I started with needs to be reworded: Remind me why every elementary school in our country doesn’t teach foreign languages?

Blue Lindner, Sonrisas Spanish

Sonrisas Spanish creates, publishes, and sells preschool and elementary Spanish curriculum. The Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum consists of fun, effective, standards-based Spanish lessons for children.

Share this post