In today’s rapidly changing world and globally connected economy, a second language often means better opportunity. In third world and developing countries, for example, the ability to speak English in addition to the national language is often the difference between the haves and the have nots. The benefits of an additional language are numerous in the United States and other more developed countries abroad, as well.
The United States as a whole is beginning to recognize this need for more bilingual individuals, most notably the country’s business, community, and government leaders. In a Washington Post article on August 8, 2006, Maria Glod noted that “school systems across the Washington (DC) area are adding foreign language classes in elementary grades” in direct response to the calls from these leaders that the United States needs this education for a competitive edge. Typically prevailing wisdom in the U.S. is to start teaching foreign languages in high school, but in many other countries the foreign language training occurs much earlier. Later in the same article, Glod pointed out that countries such as South Korea and China teach English in elementary school, citing a U.S. Department of Education report that showed more than 200 million children in China studying English at an early age compared to 24,000 in U.S. schools learning Chinese.
One stumbling block in achieving a goal of early childhood foreign language education is money. Current economic times in the United States have necessitated cutbacks in many school programs. Often foreign language education, if offered at all, is trimmed from the budget first in order to save money. A Wake Forest University news release by Cheryl Walker on June 26, 2004 makes the point that this is the wrong approach. The news release features Mary Lynn Redmond, the director of foreign language education at Wake Forest, advocating that poor economic times are when strengthening foreign language programs makes the most sense. She says, “Children should start learning a foreign language in kindergarten and continue through high school.” She goes on to say, “Learning languages helps increase listening ability, memory, creativity, and critical thinking – all of which are thinking processes that increase learning in general.”
One of the key benefits, however, is the way a child looks at the world. The United States has such a great mixture of cultures and nationalities, but one of the country’s weaknesses is the misunderstanding of those different groups. Foreign language education encourages a child to look at the world from a more open perspective, rather than an ethnocentric one. If this language education occurs later in life, the individual’s perspective has been established. If the education occurs in primary school it can have much longer lasting effects on the child’s perspective and ability to integrate with people that come from different cultures or opposing viewpoints.
With the benefits of foreign language education in elementary school established, the difficulties of implementing the foreign language program are numerous. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) offers a set of guidelines for such a program, with the main focus being on both access and equity. According to the ACTFL, “All students, regardless of learning styles, achievement levels, race/ethnic origin, socioeconomic status, home language, or future academic goals, have opportunities for foreign language study.” By making the foreign language program accessible to all students, not just the best performing, the potential of the program can be fully realized.
U.S. citizens can no longer expect that the only language they will need to be successful in life is English. By teaching foreign language skills to our children, we are preparing them for a future that is fully global and rapidly approaching. Additionally, by teaching elementary students a foreign language, schools and parents are teaching children to be more actively engaged in their education and are giving them skills that will benefit them in other subjects, as well.
Glod, Maria. “Schools Try Elementary Approach To Teaching Foreign Languages.” Washington Post [Washington DC] 8 Aug. 2006: 3. Print.
Walker, Cheryl. “Foreign Language Study Important in Elementary School.” Wake Forest News Release [Wake Forest] 26 Jun. 2004. Print.
“Characteristics of Effective Programs – American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.” Home – American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2010. .