Curriculum Opinion

Teach America’s Youngest a Second Language

By John Wilson — August 05, 2013 3 min read
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There is nothing more energizing than visiting an elementary school where teachers are working their magic while children soak up every morsel of new knowledge and skills. This past spring, I visited Elon Elementary School near Elon University in North Carolina. If you visit these primary classrooms, you’ll find a room full of typical American students, but you’ll hear these little children responding to their teachers in Spanish. These are Spanish immersion classes selected by the children’s parents. They are a part of the Global Schools Network, a partnership with VIF International Education and public schools.

VIF International Education is a certified B Corporation. That means they have met rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. There are only 600 B corporations in 15 countries and 60 industries. In other words, VIF is a successful business with a social conscience.

VIF has basically four programs, all providing professional development and curriculum. VIF is also about to unveil an exciting online program of excellent lesson plans. Elon Elementary School is part of VIF’s “Splash” program that provides world language programs and services to schools. VIF also brings international teachers to American schools for a limited period of time in order to infuse our schools with new cultures and experiences. In addition, there is VIF’s Global Schools Network. Each school in the network must meet the global literacy criteria to earn the designation and support.

The work of VIF International Education and its partnerships with the State Board of Education and other key stakeholders are making North Carolina a leader in assuring children have access to world languages and cultures. Their participation in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills highlights the power of business, government, and education working together to give all students access to global literacy programs.

I would be remiss if I did not also mention the great work of Utah with its Dual Language Immersion Program. Governor John Huntsman, a former candidate for the Republican nomination for president and a former Ambassador to China, was an early champion of this program and, by the way, speaks fluent Mandarin. Utah educators are convinced that their program not only gives students proficiency in another language, but also improves test scores, enhances cognitive skills and appropriate cultural sensitivities, and, in the long run, positions students for the best jobs in a global community.

Jeffrey Kluger wrote an excellent article for Time magazine on this topic and the Utah schools. I was struck by the research he noted. He wrote, “Research is increasingly showing that the brains of people who know two or more languages are different from those who know just one--and those differences are all for the better. Multilingual people, studies show, are better at reasoning, at multi-tasking, at grasping and reconciling conflicting ideas. They work faster and expend less energy doing so, and as they age, they retain their cognitive faculties longer, delaying the onset of dementia and even full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.” Kluger was quick to note that bilingual brains are not always smarter but are usually more flexible and resourceful.

Even more intriguing was the information that Kluger shared on the importance of learning a second language early. From some of the studies that have been done in Canada, Kluger wrote that babies in utero recognize their mothers’ language rhythms and, at birth, recognize their native language. If the mother is bilingual, they recognize both languages, and, up to age one, babies retain an ear for languages. The later we wait to teach children a second language, the harder it is. The lesson for our schools is that the sooner students start learning a second language, the more proficient they will be. This new research makes a strong case for beginning second language acquisition in preschool. The research should also encourage parents to learn new languages along with their babies.

With all this research and success in programs from North Carolina to Utah, what are we waiting for? We can help make America’s children full participants in their global community. That can happen if we focus our resources and teaching time on things that make a real difference for our students’ future.

The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.