I have witnessed a fascinating development in my household recently. My 11-year-old son is obsessed with learning foreign languages. First it was Spanish. Then German. And then he added Chinese.
At the moment, he hasn’t mastered much more than how to count to 10 in Spanish and German. And learning Chinese is still in the pipe-dream phase. But he is motivated. He found a software package he plans to use for Spanish, which he sees as a very practical language because we have a lot of Spanish-speaking people in our community, and some of the kids on his soccer team are bilingual. And recently, on a family trip to Vermont, a girl who had just moved to the U.S. from Germany taught him how to count to 10 in German. He spent the rest of the night counting to 10 in German, over and over. Nearly drove us all crazy.
Why is this important? Well, the honest truth is I have never seen my 11-year-old this motivated to learn anything academic. Of course, this may just be a passing fancy, something that seems cool to him now, but will fizzle out once he sees how difficult it is to learn a language. But maybe not.
Education Week has devoted quite a bit of coverage lately to the nation’s growing interest in the teaching of foreign languages, particularly those languages--such as Arabic and Chinese--that would be useful to know for economic, political, and national security reasons.
But what really fascinates me is students’ motivation to learn languages. I don’t think my son is an anomaly. Other kids seem to have a similar level of motivation to learn languages.
And that raises a question: If they are motivated to learn, why do so many schools around the country (including my school district) wait until middle school before they even start teaching languages? Why not start in elementary school? Why not tap into this motivation to learn sooner?
A version of this news article first appeared in the Motivation Matters blog.