Preschoolers Study Foreign Tongues

By Linda Jacobson — March 24, 2004 7 min read
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The 4-year-olds grab foam alphabet letters from a pile in the middle of a table, matching them to the large words on pieces of construction paper: le pantalon, la cravate, les savates.

Trés bien, Chloe,” instructor Catherine Jolivet-Johnson praises one of the preschoolers.

Moving to another room, where most of the materials and decorative items are labeled in French, the children try out their pronunciation of gros, the word for huge or fat, and grand, for large.

All the words they’ve practiced this morning appear in a song about a clown—part of a series of activities leading up to this year’s celebration of Mardi Gras at French for Fun, a language and cultural center here surrounded by rolling hills east of Oakland.

Many of the young children who attend the center’s full language-immersion classes become bilingual by the time they are ready to enter kindergarten—a skill that an increasing number of parents want their children to acquire.

“It has been the most fabulous experience,” said Chloe’s mother, Paige McCullough. “It’s everything a traditional American preschool is, but 100 times more.”

Interest in foreign-language instruction in preschool is growing, both among parents and early-childhood educators trying to meet the demand. The interest, though, comes at a time when some districts are scaling back on such programs in the elementary grades in order to spend more time on reading and mathematics—the subjects currently tested to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“On one hand, we have parents clamoring for this,” said Nancy Rhodes, the director of foreign-language instruction at the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that conducts research and provides training and information on language-related issues. “But on the other hand, we have No Child Left Behind emphasizing reading and math. We are feeling that pull.”

Maintaining Their Heritage

Immersion programs—in which children hear only the second language while they are in the classroom—is one of the models of instruction that have been growing at the preschool level. Some experts say that way is the most effective for young children to learn another language.

“The main purpose of immersion is to have them learn without really even knowing they’re learning,” said Chris Clark, who founded Kids Into Speaking Spanish, also here in Lafayette, two years ago.

Although some parents initially worry that being immersed in a second language might hamper their children’s skills in English later on, educators say that’s not the case.

Learning a second language “enhances their native-language skills,” Ms. Rhodes said. “Immersion kids score higher in creativity and problem-solving.”

That’s what Ms. Rhodes’ sister Laura Rhodes is hoping will be the case with her daughter, Emilia Kuentz. Emilia is in her second year of a French-immersion program at Maryvale Elementary School in Rockville, Md., part of the 139,000-student Montgomery County system.

“At the very least, she’ll be bilingual, and I expect it will enhance her language and reading ability,” Laura Rhodes said.

But having strong academic skills is not the only reason parents want their young children to have such opportunities. Some also want them exposed to other cultures and traditions. Others are trying to maintain their own heritage. “You have to be aware that this world is bigger than us,” said Cynthia Lowe, whose son, Sebastian, attends the Wah Mei School, a Chinese-American bilingual preschool, across the bay from Lafayette in San Francisco.

Both Ms. Lowe and her husband know Chinese, but they found that their son almost exclusively spoke English at home. They enrolled him in the program—located next to a church south of Golden Gate Park—because they want to keep the Chinese culture alive in their family, and because they think being bilingual will open up more education and job opportunities.

Opening children’s eyes to other cultures was also why the Missoula International School—a Spanish-immersion program—was founded in 1995, said Julie Lennox, the executive director of the independent 70-pupil Montana school for prekindergartners through 2nd graders.

While Missoula is more ethnically diverse than the rest of Montana, Ms. Lennox said, it still has a largely homogeneous population.

“We not only provide a second language, but we create a knowledge of diversity,” she said.

Even though parents might not be thinking about how employable their 4-year-olds will be in 20 years, other foreign-language experts say competition for jobs is still another reason to be able to speak more than one language.

“Sooner or later, what I think is going to happen is the realization of how many jobs we are exporting because people abroad speak English very well,” said Elizabeth Webb, the program specialist for foreign-language and international education at the Georgia education department. “This is becoming a competitive disadvantage at home.”

Elementary Shortages

Sitting in a chair in her aunt’s office, her thick brown hair pulled back with a headband, 6-year-old Emilia Kuentz is not too eager to chat about what she does in 1st grade at Maryland’s Maryvale Elementary, or why she enjoys learning French. She prefers to sing. “Quand c’est l’hiver, il neige, il neige,” Emilia sings in a quiet voice. “When it’s winter, it snows, it snows,” the words mean.

Songs and rhymes are one of the primary means teachers use to make children comfortable with the new language. In fact, throughout the morning at French for Fun, Conor Norris, one of the 4-year-olds in the Bay Area program, has been intermittently using English. But during a music time, he pulls at the sides of his bluejeans to make them look baggy, stomps his feet as if he’s wearing oversize shoes, and loudly sings lines from the clown song: “De grandes savates. Un grand pantalon.”

Ms. Jolivet-Johnson, an energetic leader who first came to the United States as an exchange student from France, also uses games to teach grammar. Standing before a cardboard box, with one side cut out into the shape of a clown’s face, the children line up to take turns tossing beanbags into the nose, mouth, or eyes. Later, they get to walk across a piece of string taped longways on a table, as if they’re acrobats on a tightrope.

The children cheer for one another, while what they’re really doing, Ms. Jolivet-Johnson says, is learning the prepositions “in” and “on.”

Children learning a foreign language in preschool, however, might not be able to continue developing those skills when they reach elementary school. Even before the No Child Left Behind Act, funding for elementary foreign-language programs was limited. Languages are more commonly introduced as electives at the middle and high school levels.

Only seven states, according to Ms. Rhodes, mandate that foreign language be taught at the elementary level, even though it’s widely believed that it’s easier for children to learn a second language when they’re younger.

“The reason we don’t see more preschool and kindergarten early- language programs has to do with cost and the availability of teachers,” said Ms. Webb of Georgia, one of the few states that pay for foreign language in the elementary grades. The state’s “model” foreign-language program operates in about 20 schools statewide.

Although most states have not pursued immersion programs, Ms. Webb added, that model—in which the teacher provides both the language and the curriculum content—can be less expensive than hiring an instructor to teach the language separately.

Ms. Rhodes said the Center for Applied Linguistics often receives inquiries from preschool directors looking for foreign-language teachers. The center is seeking funding to study the trend and provide more solid statistics on language programs at the preschool level.

Because most elementary schools do not offer foreign language, centers like French for Fun and the Wah Mei Preschool provide after- school and weekend classes for older students. In fact, a former student of Ms. Jolivet-Johnson’s is now sending her own child to the program.

“That’s what we do—we grow up together,” she said.

The lack of elementary foreign- language instruction in the 32,000-student Des Moines, Iowa, district is what led Theresa Weeks and Jane Hallman—PTA members at Hanawalt Elementary there—to start their own after-school language club. Since it began four years ago, the once-a-week program, providing a choice of French or Spanish, has attracted roughly 120 pupils a year. Parents pay a fee for the class, but PTA money covers special events or celebrations.

“If parents want it, they have to take the initiative themselves,” said Ms. Weeks, who grew interested in starting the program after her daughter, whose Montessori preschool offered French, moved into Hanawalt. “We hit on something that parents had a craving for.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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