Foreign-Language Instruction Resurfacing in Elementary Schools

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BLADENSBURG, MD--All eyes in Francois Lareuse's kindergarten class at Rogers Heights Elementary School here were glued to the little girl at the front of the room.

Pretending to be Goldilocks in the cottage of the three bears, the child picked up a large bucket and sampled some imaginary porridge from it.

"C'est chaud," she said as she fanned her mouth to cool it from the heat of the imaginary porridge. Picking up the second bucket, she pretended to shiver, and said, "C'est froid." Then, eating from the tiniest bucket, the girl rubbed her belly and pronounced, "Yum, yum. C'est bon."

The meaning of her French words was abundantly clear to her young classmates, although most of them have probably never seen Paris. They giggled at her antics and prodded her on when she hesitated.

That is because students at this school in suburban Washington are enrolled in a French-immersion program and hear nothing but that language in their classes from the day they enter kindergarten until their 6th-grade graduation.

According to foreign-language educators, programs like this one are on the cutting edge of an emerging national trend. Elementary-school foreign-language programs, which all but disappeared from public schools nearly two decades ago, are making a cautious comeback.

"Americans are finally realizing again that it's a small world, and in order to compete successfully, we really need to look at languages," said Ellen Boudreaux, a past president of Advocates for Early Language Learning, a national group dedicated to that cause.

Despite an apparent resurgence in interest in the subject, foreign language study is still a somewhat rare commodity in elementary schools. By one estimate, only about 5 percent of elementary students nationwide study a second language.

Still, experts say, that figure represents a significant gain over the 1980's, when states were just beginning to mandate foreign-language study for elementary students.

Interest at All Levels

Since 1982, four states--Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and North Carolina have mandated some instruction in the subject for elementary-school students.

A handful of other states are tackling the subject in more cautious ways. School officials in Maine, for example, have recommended that foreign language be part of the "core curriculum" for all students, beginning in elementary school.

And in Arkansas, elementary schools now must provide students with some "foreign-language experience" to win state accreditation. This might include cultural studies, some exposure tea second language, or both, according to an official there.

"These studies are increasing, and the increase is notable," said J. David Edwards, executive director of the Joint National Committee on Languages, an advocacy group.

To some degree, the growth can be attributed to increased interest in languages at all levels of schooling. A soon-to-be released survey by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages indicates that 37 percent of all students in grades 9 through 12 are studying foreign languages-an all-time high.

The shift began "probably [in] the mid-1980's with a recognition of the relevance of foreign languages [and of] how global and international we are," said Mr. Edwards.

"Part of what produced that," he said, "were things like [Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev shaking hands on Connecticut Avenue [in Washington], the maps of Kuwait you saw on the nightly news during the Persian Gulf War, the concern about the Japanese beating us up in the international market."

Growth in the South

Somewhat surprisingly, some of the sharpest enrollment increases in such programs have come in Southern states with relatively small non-English-speaking populations, Mr. Edwards said. A 1986 report, "Cornerstone on Competition," by the Southern Governors' Association helped spur new interest in that region, he added.

Pointing up the link between economic competitiveness and the ability to speak a second language, the report recommended that Southern schools provide opportunities for language learning to all elementary school students, "as early as the first year of school."

"A lot of the states where you see things happening had enlightened leadership--governors--who said, "Heck, we are truly international and if we want to attract international business we need to have international studies,'" Mr. Edwards said.

Such was the case in part in North Carolina, which has one of the strongest mandates in the nation for teaching foreign languages. By 1993, all schoolchildren in that state will be required to study a language.

"We have an awful lot of foreign companies, industries, and trade in North Carolina," said Gerard Toussaint, a language consultant for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. "We have Research Triangle Park and a highly visionary superintendent, and the business community has been supportive."

Traditional regional and cultural factors have also played a role in some of the growth. A major impetus for Louisiana's nearly decade-old foreign-language mandate was the need to preserve the cultural heritage of the state's many speakers of Acadian French. All "academically able" students in grades 4 through 8 in that state must receive 30 minutes of foreign language a day, said Margaret Singer, the foreign-language coordinator for Louisiana schools.

The mandate in Arizona, said Robert Sosa, an education-program specialist for its education department, reflects in part the state's large Spanish-speaking population and its close trading ties with Mexico.

More Is Better

At the elementary-school level in particular, a major impetus for the new interest has also been simple common sense.

"The earlier you can give it, the more you can give it, the better," said Mane-Cecile Louvet, who is coordinating the immersion program at Rogers Heights Elementary School.

A number of studies also suggest that, at least in some respects, children learn a language more easily when they are younger.

"It's no big deal for them," said Nancy J. Rhodes, a research associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington. "High school and junior high school is the worst time, because kids are going through puberty and they're worried about their looks and insecure, and we're trying to get them to make these strange sounds."

"But little kids like saying strange sounds," she added.

As a result, experts say, their pronunciation, if not their grammar, tends to be better than that of older foreign-language learners.

Elementary-school foreign'language programs take a variety of forms. The more traditional model, known as sequential FLES, Or "foreign language in the elementary school," provides students with regular, sequential instruction in the language, preferably at least 30 minutes daily.

A less intensive variation is a FLEX, or "foreign-language experience," program that gives students some regular exposure to cultural studies and some language through songs, folktales, and other methods.

The "Cadillac" model, however, is an immersion program such as the one at Rogers Heights. Students receive all of their instruction, in every subject, in the second language and learn to read in English only after having mastered the task in the second tongue. While these programs represent only about 1 percent to 2 percent of all the foreign-language programs nationally, they are probably the fastest-growing kind.

A 1987 survey, lists 67 such programs across the nation--a marked increase from a decade earlier when there was only one such program.

Some of that growth was spurred by the success of those programs in Canada. A 1972 Canadian study suggested that children in immersion programs also tend to do better in creative thinking and problem-solving than some of their peers in more traditional kinds of language programs.

"It opens up their brain and creates new pathways for learning," said Ms. Boudreaux of Advocates for Early Language Learning, who is also a speech pathologist and who has a son in the Rogers Heights program.

Role in Desegregation

In this country, a number of school systems have also turned to immersion and other foreign-language-oriented programs as a desegregation tool.

"Most parents associate foreign language with a strong academic program," said Pat Barr-Harnsen, the foreign-language supervisor for public schools in Prince George's County, Md. where Rogers Heights is located. "Rather than having children bused, if parents had options they would not look at who's there but at what's there."

Her district's first foreign-language-oriented magnet was an international-studies program for gifted students, which has since grown to include other pupils. In addition to cultural studies, pupils learn basic phrases and vocabulary in a number of languages, including Japanese.

Soon after, the French-immersion school was added, along with several academic magnets that offer sequential FLES programs in grades 4 through 6 in several languages, including Latin.

Along the way, educators in the immersion program said they also discovered that the approach had a kind of equalizing effect. In the second language, they found, students considered "at risk" and some special-education students tended to perform as well as their more advantaged peers.

"The techniques appeal to all learning styles," said Kathy Lundberg, a 1st-grade teacher at Rogers Heights. "All teachers should use these techniques but don't, because they assume what they are saying is understood."

In her own class, for example, Ms. Lundberg uses visual aids, such as drawings and posters, as well as manipulatives and body language to illustrate the concepts she is trying to convey in French. Students are also encouraged to act out concepts, making a surprised face, for example, to illustrate the word surprise. The technique, increasingly common in all foreign-language programs, is known as "total physical response."

Susan DePlatchett, the principal of Rogers Heights, said the immersion program also provides poorer students with exposure to language they might never have gotten in a more traditional program.

"In high school, many students who've had academic failures in the past elect not to choose to study a language because they don't see that's for them," she said.

'It's Not for Everyone'

But, while the benefits of foreign-language instruction may be intensified in an immersion program, so, too, are the pitfalls.

Experts say the idea is often a difficult "sell" for parents.

"You have to have a city or a town or school district where the parents are open-minded," said Ms. Singer of Louisiana, which has three immersion schools.

"The complaints we get are not from the parents of the slower students, but from the gifted ones," she said. "They are pushing their kids to truly excel on high-school S.A.T.'S, and if they don't get a lot of work in language arts they're going to have a problem."

As a parent of a boy who attends Rogers Heights, Peggy Hool is aware of what the critics say.

"They would say, 'Gee, he doesn't read English very well,' but you can't compare a 2nd grader in immersion school versus a 2nd grader in an English program," she said. "It's not for everyone."

Rogers Heights' immersion students learn to read in English in 2nd grade--after having already learned to read in French. By 5th grade, proponents of the immersion method say, students usually "catch up" in reading with their peers in traditional elementary schools.

A Louisiana study bears out that contention. It found that on tests of basic skills, immersion students did as well or better than students in regular schools.

Concern for Teacher Pipeline

The biggest problem with all three types of elementary-school programs may be finding and training teachers. According to Mr. Edwards's group, 35 states are facing shortages of second-language teachers.

"That's going to be our big question we're dealing with over the next couple of years," said Alfred Gage, a specialist in foreign-language education for the Oklahoma Department of Education. "We just don't have people in the pipeline."

He said the problem is that many certified foreign-language teachers, already in short supply, may not be trained to teach younger pupils. Conversely, few elementary-school teachers have foreign-language training.

Louisiana officials attempted to solve that problem by recruiting teachers from outside the country. Many of the state's teachers come from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama, France, and other nations.

In other states, however, that method has proved to be, in the words of one principal, "a nightmare."

At Rogers Heights, for example, school administrators said, a teacher who had taught French in immersion schools in Canada soon learned, after beginning work here, that she would need to earn 39 education credits to keep her job--despite holding an education degree from a Canadian university.

"You need someone with near-native language ability," for an immersion program, Ms. Louvet, the school's program coordinator, said, "and then you hope they have a degree and then you hope that degree is in education."

Planning for Later

Not all experts, however, are convinced that early-language instruction is worth that kind of trouble.

Richard Lambert, director of the National Foreign Language Center at Johns Hopkins University, said studies suggesting younger children acquire languages more easily than older children do are not definitive.

"It's true of the first language, but it's not that all-fired true for the second language," he said.

"What's missing is what's happening to those kids afterwards," he continued. "Most high schools start kids off on languages and don't have that much capacity for kids that have already acquired some language."

In Prince George's County, school administrators said they are attempting to solve that problem by planning a middle-school French program that would meet the needs of immersion students, probably by including two courses taught entirely in French.

Sputnik-Era Push, Then Decline

The cautious rebirth of elementary-school foreign-language study recalls an earlier era in education. As Gladys Lipton, a coordinator of foreign-language workshops and outreach at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, points out, there was a similar surge in interest in second-language learning "following the discovery that our scientists and government officials could not read the Russian journals prior to the announcement of Sputnik."

The Sputnik-era National Defense Education Act sponsored institutes for foreign-language teachers, and millions of dollars were poured into programs at the elementary level.

By the 1970's, those programs had all but disappeared.

"There was a recession, and people began to tighten their belts and say, 'Let's see what's a frill out there,'" Ms. Lipton said.

Then too, many believe, those programs had failed.

"We promised too much," said Ms. Lipton, who has written two books on the subject.

Parents, who thought that two years of 30-minute lessons would make their children fluent in a second language, were disappointed. There was little linkage between the elementary-school program and studies at upper levels. And teachers with little training often were recruited to teach the new classes, according to several experts.

Ms. Lipton, for example, recalls being a fledgling teacher in the 1950's and hearing a principal say: "'Do you know a little bit about a foreign language? Maybe you could teach it to the children.'"

"I think people are doing a great deal more planning now," she said.

Moreover, she said, the interest in the subject this time around may be more of a "grassroots" effort, fueled in part by parents' groups like Ms. Boudreaux's.

The new movement, however, comes armed with little money and limited federal support. The national education goals drafted by President Bush and the governors do not mention foreign languages. And Mr. Bush, in his America 2000 plan, does not propose national tests in foreign languages.

And, like many school programs, foreign-language studies are feeling the pinch of the recession this year. Funding for North Carolina's mandate was reduced for the first time this year, and Georgia lawmakers eliminated funds for a pilot test of kindergarten language programs.

Despite such setbacks, C. Edward Scebold, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, expressed optimism about the long-term prospects.

"I think the increases probably won't slip away from us this time around," he said.

Vol. 11, Issue 10, Pages 1, 12-13

Published in Print: November 6, 1991, as Foreign-Language Instruction Resurfacing in Elementary Schools
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