Guest post by Judy Martialay
Learning a Foreign Language in Elementary School is Important and Foreign Language in Elementary School (FLES) is a wonderful boost for all kids. As I mentioned in my past article on MCBD, the world that we need to prepare our children for is filled with multiple languages. Regardless of their career choices or where they may live, it is more probable than ever that they will be communicating and working with people from diverse language and cultural backgrounds.
Foreign Language in Elementary Schools
Why begin to learn a language early? We can learn a language at any age, but starting very young has big advantages:
1.Children have more time to learn a language. It takes many years to be truly fluent in a language. Think of how long it took your child to speak English effortlessly, practicing day in and day out.
2.Children are wired to learn languages. They have the ability to repeat any sound in a foreign language and to speak with almost native pronunciation. This means that they will not only be understood but also they will be able to hear and understand better. This ability disappears at around the age of puberty, 12 years old., just when most of our
students are beginning to study a language.
Foreign Language in Elementary School | What are FLES classes like?
I recently interviewed Mr.D, the teacher of Mandarin Chinese in our local elementary school. All the children in our district begin Mandarin in kindergarten. They can change to Spanish in grade 3 and to other languages in middle school. The Mandarin class is described here, but classes in Spanish or any other language are similar at this level.
Children address Mr. D using the Mandarin word for “teacher”, Laoshi. The students learn with a variety of activities, games, and songs. They greet each other and ask how they are. They learn to talk about the weather, school, countries, food, and many other topics. The day I interviewed the teacher, the children were learning the body parts in Mandarin, and they played “Pin the tail on the Dragon.”
The teacher reads stories to the children. He brings comic books into the older classes and encourages them to recognize characters.
Throughout the year, kindergarten children work on a book project,“All About Me”, where they write their autobiographies. Older children work on projects using technologies with IPAD and Chrome, where they can compose stories.
The children learn the pronunciation of Mandarin, including the tones, by repetition. Repetition is good when learning a foreign language!
In kindergarten, Mr. D.introduces the Chinese characters with a book called The Pet Dragon by Christoph Nieman. Children practice the strokes needed to form the characters and gain familiarity with apps.
At this age, children accept this new language without question. With Mandarin (and Spanish or French, etc) they are learning to think in a different way. This ability to express ideas in a different way promotes flexibility in the brain; this ability has major cognitive benefits. They are also learning to accept cultural differences.
Children are encouraged to use their Mandarin outside of class. One girl has befriended a waiter in the local Chinese restaurant and brought him a weather wheel that she made in class. Some children’s parents speak Mandarin or have colleagues who speak the language with the children.
Boys do as well as girls in FLES classes. At this age, they have not yet absorbed attitudes that are prevalent about how it isn’t macho to speak a foreign language.
Students of all abilities can succeed because there is ample time and repetition for practice to master the language.
What can parents do to encourage their children?
In our mostly monolingual country, your support as a parent can make a big difference. Point out the benefits of knowing another language. Find a relative or friend who speaks the language and is willing to have conversations with your child in the language.
You can encourage your budding bilingual children by finding opportunities for the kids to practice, with free apps, Duo Lingo, programs on Youtube, and movies about culture. Take the children to a restaurant where food from that country is served. Make visits to local cultural events.
What can you do if your district doesn’t offer FLES classes?
In the U.S., only about 25% of elementary schools, public or private, offer any form of FLES program. If your school district doesn’t have FLES classes, what can you do?
The benefits are so important, you don’t want your child to lose this opportunity. Go to the school principal and/or superintendent and ask that they begin these programs. If possible, go with like-minded parents; there is strength in numbers.
Meantime, find a program that you can use at home with your child, like ¡Hola! Let’s Learn Spanish or Bonjour! Let’s Learn French. These books are designed for parents to use with their children, 6-10, whether or not they know the language. The audio program is free and downloadable on the website http://www.polyglotkidz.com, along with lots of resources. The books are easy and fun to use for the whole family. There may be private classes available in your area, summer camps, and lots of resources online.
Every child should have the opportunity to begin to learn a second language early and to continue learning that language until he or she is proficient.
For free downloadable infosheets about the benefits of learning a language other than English, please visit http://polyglotkidz.com/benefits_of_knowing_another_language/
Please make sure that your child has the early language advantage enjoyed by their peers around the world. Request a FLES program for your school. Find alternatives for your child if necessary, and learn or review the language yourself. Enjoy!
About the Author
Judy has taught languages on Long Island and is an active member of the Public Advocacy Committee of the New York State Association of Foreign Language Teachers. She lives on Long Island with her husband. Has two daughters and a granddaughter. Her missions are have let every child have the opportunity to learn a world language at an early age, and she wants parents, everyone to have fun with a language and appreciate the beauty of the cultures of our world. Judy is the author of ¡HOLA! Let’s Learn Spanish and her newest book, Bonjour! Let’s Learn French will be published in October
“Language study promotes tolerance for diversity.”
¡HOLA! Let’s Learn Spanish
NABE Pinnacle Book Achievement Award Winner Winter 2017
Honorable Mention Educational Purple Dragonfly Book Award 2017
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Lead with languages