Elementary Schools’ Asian-Language Classes Provide ‘Something To Communicate About’

By Debra Viadero — May 01, 1991 8 min read

Silver Spring, MD.--On a sunny day last week, a group of 3rd-grade students here stepped into an imaginary spaceship and pretended to buckle up for a long ride.

Soon after “lift off,” the students’ instructor pointed, in the manner of a space-age tour guide, to a spot on the wall marked with Japanese kanji characters.

“Taiyo,” said the teacher, Yoshihiro Ichijo, giving the Japanese word for “sun.”

“Dosei,” he said a moment later, motioning to another spot on the wall where a small sign bore the Japanese word for Saturn.

“Mokusei,” he added, turning the class’s attention to another label taped to another wall intended to represent Jupiter.

The students followed along intently, joining with Mr. Ichijo as he began to count down in Japanese toward the end of the imaginary flight. Following some rapid-fire instructions in Japanese, the children pretended to remove their spacesuits, step out of their boots, and file out of the spaceship, ducking their heads as they went to avoid bumping into the imaginary doorframe Mr. Ichijo pointed out to them.

While this might be an appropriate classroom activity for Japanese students learning about the solar system, this classroom is far from Japan. All of the students here are members of a class at Oakland Terrace Elementary School--a typical school in a middle-class suburb where 65 percent of the students are white, 17 percent are black, 11 percent are Hispanic, and 7 percent are Asian.

As part of a program being piloted by Montgomery County school officials, every 3rd- and 4th-grade student at this school is studying Japanese, five days a week, for half an hour each day.

Even in the field of foreign-language study, which has been turned upside down in recent years by an explosion of new research findings, this program represents something slightly different.

It blends several new trends in the field: greater interest in the study of non-Western tongues and a move to expose students to foreign languages at earlier ages.

And, while not technically a foreign-language-immersion approach, it employs some of the same principles. Nearly all of the instruction in the class is in Japanese. And, as demonstrated by Mr. Ichijo’s imaginary trip through the solar system, teachers shy away from a traditionally heavy emphasis on grammar and use their foreign-language classes to expand upon content students may already be learning elsewhere in the curriculum.

“The most natural thing for young children to do is communicate,” says Myriam Met, the foreign-language coordinator for the school system. “What this does is give them something to communicate about.”

Nearly 30 years ago, elementary-school foreign-language classes were common across the nation. They began to disappear, however, in the 1970’s--victims of education-budget cuts and, in some cases, their own ineffectiveness.

“Some of the programs were 20 minutes, twice a week, in Spanish, where children were coloring in pictures of pinatas,” says Catherine Baumann, a workshop director for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “When people began to look at what children retained, it wasn’t much.”

Moreover, adds Jamie Draper, assistant director of the Joint National Committee for Languages, some of the programs ended at the elementary-school level, with no further instruction for students in middle school or junior high school.

But elementary-school foreign-language programs are now experiencing a resurgence in popularity resulting, in part, from the education-reform movement and new concerns about American students’ ability to compete in an international economy.

According to Ms. Draper’s group, at least four states--Louisiana, North Carolina, Arizona, and Oklahoma--have recently moved to require schools to provide some foreign-language instruction to students before the 8th grade, and more states are making efforts to encourage such programs as early as kindergarten.

“There’s a growing acknowledgment that in order to produce really proficient speakers of a foreign language, you need to start earlier,” Ms. Draper says.

Montgomery County, an affluent suburb of Washington, has long been a leader in those efforts. The school system has had a French-immersion program in elementary school since 1974 and now has a wide range of full-day and partial immersion programs in several elementary schools.

But, while regarded by experts in the field as the most powerful means of achieving proficiency in a second language, immersion programs are difficult to put in every school.

The purpose of the pilot program was to test an approach that could provide some of the same kinds of opportunities for students in any elementary school, according to Ms. Met.

“Making it a magnet school would not make it a typical school,” she says. “It’s not an elective and it’s not geared toward a particular population, like gifted students.”

Aided by a $123,000 grant this year from the U.S. Education Department, the county is piloting its approach in three schools. The target languages, chosen by the county school board, are Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese.

The latter two, rarely taught at the elementary level, are considered difficult for non-Western speakers to grasp.

But that difficulty, Ms. Met says, makes it all the more important to begin such studies early.

“They don’t sound the same, and they’re not grammatically structured the same way,” she says. “You need more time to learn them.”

“The board was also trying to be forward-looking as to what might be some of the language needs of children who would be leaders in the 21st century,” she continues. “One billion people on the planet speak Chinese, and that’s a lot of people.”

Moreover, Ms. Met adds, the content-based approach to the teaching of those languages lends the program an important practical advantage making it more palatable for elementary schools.

“If you tie it closely to other subjects in the curriculum,” she says, “you’re not really taking time out for foreign language.”

That kind of reasoning was readily apparent to the parents and teachers at Oakland Terrace, according to Susan Marks, the school’s principal.

“Some people have said, ‘Why Japanese?”’ she says. “Others have said, ‘This is going to be one of the languages of the 21st century,’ and in our country very few people are bilingual.”

Mr. Ichijo, a native speaker of Japanese, is one of two Japanese-language teachers at the school, where the program is now in its second year.

Like all of the teachers in the new program, both Japanese teachers at Oakland Terrace meet with the students’ regular classroom teachers regularly to plan foreign-language activities that either complement or expand upon lessons in other subjects.

Through some of those kinds of activities, for example, students have been asked to weigh and describe fruits or take metric measurements of their desks--all of which takes place in the foreign language.

Students are not expected to become proficient in the language and, for now, they are not being graded on their classroom performance.

But, at the end of their first year, according to Mr. Ichijo, the students will have been taught some basic vocabulary useful in everyday life and should be able to say when their birthday is, give their names, and utter some other simple phrases. He said the students will begin writing the language next year--a somewhat more daunting task considering the Japanese must learn three different writing systems in order to be literate.

Despite the complexity of the language and the fact that the classes are taught almost entirely in the foreign language from the start, educators say the students do not appear to be intimidated by these new experiences.

“Sometimes I teach my little brother how to say, ‘hi’ and ‘goodbye’ and the days of the week,” says David Sheirei, a 3rd-grade student at the school.

Tanya Mason, the class’s regular classroom teacher, says her students often use Japanese words throughout the school day, once playfully writing their Japanese names at the top of their papers rather than their more familiar given names. She says they also count in Japanese when she turns out the room lights one by one--her signal to the students to be quiet.

“Yes, there’s a half an hour every day used for Japanese, but I incorporate what Mr. Ichijo is doing in what I do, and he does the same,” she says. “It really makes other subjects more interesting.”

County school officials are drawing up tests now to determine how much of the language students are retaining. Principals at Oakland Terrace and at Rock Creek Valley Elementary School, where students are learning Chinese through the program, say they already see some of the benefits of the program.

“It’s the discipline to learn to listen that I believe transfers to other academic subjects,” says Pearl Drain, principal of Rock Creek Valley Elementary. “For once, they are forced to listen to learn something.”

The principals say the classes may have also enhanced their students’ understanding of and sensitivity to other cultures--including those of non-English-speaking children in their own school.

“Some of our [English-as-a-second-language] students do well in Japanese, and it’s eye-opening to our English-speaking students and gives them greater sensitivity,” Ms. Marks says.

For the most part, parents continue to be enthusiastic, the administrators say. Ms. Drain says parents at Rock Creek Valley have told her their children beg to eat at Chinese restaurants so they can use their new-found linguistic skills to order food. A father at Oakland Terrace, according to Ms. Marks, has begun studying the language himself in order to be able to converse with his son.

Once the final results are in, it will be up to the Montgomery County school board to decide whether to expand the program, Ms. Met says. In the meantime, she and other experts in the field say they are hoping that foreign-language study has come back to stay in the elementary school.

“There seems to be some evidence that children more easily acquire positive attitudes toward other cultures when they’re younger,” Ms. Met says, “and the children love it.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1991 edition of Education Week as Elementary Schools’ Asian-Language Classes Provide ‘Something To Communicate About’