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Cutting elementary foreign language--often no big loss

The article on whether to cut foreign language instruction in Fairfax County by my colleague Michael Alison Chandler reveals a rarely discussed facet of such classes in America. In many cases they aren't very good. The elementary school versions in particular are often designed more to impress parents than make kids bilingual.

The problem, also rarely discussed, is that it is difficult to find teachers who both speak a foreign language well and know how to teach it effectively. But school administrators have noticed that parents are impressed by the existence of foreign language classes. So they will often compromise by hiring a teacher who isn't very good, but at least is warm and friendly and willing to promote the fiction that her students are on their way to fluency.
The only exception to this rule are foreign language immersions programs that not only teach the language, but insist that it be used when students are studying other subjects like science or math. Elementary schools like Key in Arlington have first-class teachers and administrators and attract large numbers of Spanish-speaking students who need work in English and English-speaking students who need work in Spanish. Putting both together in the same class, using English sometimes and Spanish other times, is a first-rate approach that should be fought for when it is time to cut budgets.
Twice-a-week classes for beginning speakers are not going to prepare the child well enough to skip the introductory for-credit course they will encounter in middle school or high school. If we have to cut something in elementary schools, these won't be a big loss.
Also, keep in mind that the more exotic the language, the more it will impress parents. But the more exotic the language, the less likely the teaching will be very good. I struggled to learn Chinese for much of my youth, and have friends who teach it in college today. They remain appalled at the level of instruction, even in some of our best high schools. So before you get excited about all those great language offerings at Lake River Forest Prep, keep in mind that often they are just there for show.

By Jay Mathews  | November 17, 2009; 3:05 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Fairfax budget cuts, Key Elementary School Arlington, foreign languages, language instruction  
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Isn't there something to the idea that being taught by a native speaker when young will help the child pick up the correct accent? My 7 year old is taking a once per week Mandarin immersion class. We're going to be supplementing this with an actual curriculum at home (I'm currently researching them). Mandarin is a tonal language so it's really difficult for native English speakers to learn it as an adult.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 17, 2009 4:26 PM | Report abuse

As usual, it depends on how much time goes into it. If the kid is living with the Mandarin speaker and communicates with her in that language,you're set. If the immersion is three hours a week, pretty good. If its one hour, not gonna do much. The more the child speaks the language, even in rudimentary form, the better off you are, and of course having a native speaker is ideal, if that person is engaged in the conversation.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 17, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

In other words, a lot better than trying to participate in an hour long class three times a week with many other students then going back to the dorm and studying yr flash cards .

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 17, 2009 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Foreign language study should be an elective, and only in high school. For most students, it's a monumental waste of time and there's just no need for it. It's a feel-good liberal nostrum that's supposed to show that we Americans aren't arrogant yutzes who think everyone speaks our language. We aren't--but they do. So why bother wasting the money?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 18, 2009 12:46 AM | Report abuse

I am an American. For the last two years I lived in France. Most French don't speak English. I was an abysmal French student in junior high, high school, and one year of college. Nevertheless, I learned enough to feel confident about starting over forty years later when I got to France.
I now live in Beijing, China. Almost no one speaks English.
My opinion is that Americans should be forced to begin learning at least one foreign language (same amount of instruction as math, science, English, or history) beginning in kindergarten.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | November 18, 2009 2:52 AM | Report abuse

I should also add that a full service foreign language program does more than just teach kids to write, read, speak, and comprehend the language. It exposes kids to the culture of the countries in which the language is used. Although I agree with Jay that immersion is best, I disagree with his thoughts about cutting the language if you can't get the whole hog. Some is better than none.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | November 18, 2009 3:01 AM | Report abuse

But the more exotic the language, the less likely the teaching will be very good. I struggled to learn Chinese for much of my youth, and have friends who teach it in college today. "

How consistent!

Just more racist hatred for Chinese people from Mathews. Again, the old tried and true typical racial stereotype: the EXOTIC China....its EXOTIC women.....its EXOTIC food....etc. BUT in no way EXOTIC!



Posted by: rush_n_crush | November 18, 2009 4:18 AM | Report abuse

I think Latin preferably Oerberg starting in the fourth grade through middle school would work wonders enabling students to understand English grammar and set the stage for foreign language in high school. Otherwise the American education system will continue its free fall. Then everyone can have more worthless meetings to complain again.

Posted by: twayneb | November 18, 2009 8:26 AM | Report abuse

For rush_n_crush: I don't think that anyone who has read by many years of China reporting, including the book from China I wrote with my wife, would accept the view that I hate the Chinese, but everybody is entitled to their opinion. In this case, the word exotic meant out of the usual American foreign language class mainstream, so Spanish and French are not exotic, but Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Arabic, just to name a few languages we have tried to bring to more schools in the last few years, are. I don't think the word exotic is pejorative.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 18, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

On behalf of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), I take exception with Jay's comments about elementary language programs, particularly those in Fairfax County Public Schools. The FLES (Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools) program in Fairfax is tied directly to the general education curriculum so that the language teachers, who are all certified, reinforce the concepts that are taught in math, science, social studies, and language arts. Students in early language programs experience significant cognitive gains as well as increased academic achievement. In this day and age, learning other languages is critical to being able to live and work in a global environment. Jay, have you visited an elementary language program recently? I highly recommend it!!


Marty Abbott
Director of Education

Posted by: allsgood | November 18, 2009 5:19 PM | Report abuse

I am posting this comment for a very well-informed reader who couldn't get it in. This is the second complaint about this problem today. If it happens to you, please email me at

Ms. Chandler’s article focused on Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS).  Are you referring to a different area school system when you say that administrators “often compromise by hiring a teacher who isn’t very good?” If not, I am curious to know if you did any research on FCPS FLES (Foreign Language in the Elementary School) teachers and their qualifications.
Some areas of the country may have difficulty attracting good elementary foreign language teachers who are native speakers, however, Fairfax County is not one of those.  All FCPS teachers preK-12 must be licensed by the state of Virginia in order to teach during the school day and FLES teachers are no different. FLES teachers use a well-articulated curriculum that flows from grade 1 to the middle school and high school AND is very much content related. 
I volunteered during my son’s Spanish FLES class every week last year and I know that he is receiving top quality instruction. My two children have had excellent teachers over the past five years and our FLES teacher is no exception. Many parents that I know at other schools are also extremely impressed with their FLES (and immersion) teachers.
Our FLES teacher is energetic, interesting, and uses great lesson plans that engage the children and reinforce subject matter introduced by the classroom teacher. Each year similar vocabulary and articulation is reintroduced with new content and there is progressive and sequential learning. I was amazed at how quickly in the first grade, the children could follow directions, understand what they were being asked, and answer questions in Spanish.
There is no doubt in my mind that children receiving solid FLES instruction in grades 1-6 with continuation of language instruction during middle and high school WILL learn the language much more proficiently than students who begin instruction in high school.  High school learning focuses on memorization and regurgitation but very little sustained use of the language. How many of us learned a foreign language this way and can actually communicate effectively in that language today?
Sure, the more hours you put into a language, the easier and faster, it will be to learn.  Our school system is not set up to offer full immersion (unless that child is an English Language Learner representing a rapidly growing population in FCPS) or partial immersion to every child. FLES is the program selected by FCPS to expand the opportunity to learn another language(s) to more, and eventually, ALL elementary students in FCPS.
Research shows that children stand the best chance of developing true competence in another language if they start at an early age.  Regardless of the teaching model, why throw away any elementary foreign language program that is designed to reach this goal?  In our extremely diverse metro area and our increasingly global economy, it would be a huge step backward for FCPS and Fairfax County to cut ANY of these programs.
I agree with Marty Abbott that you should visit a few FLES classrooms before you criticize programs and insult the hard working teachers who believe in and love what they do for our children.
Sandy Knox
Brookfield Elementary parent
Co-organizer of Fairfax FLAGS (Foreign Language Advocacy for Grade Schools)

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 19, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

I am delighted to hear that Fairfax County is so well supplied with good foreign language teachers. Our school districts are the exception to many rules, as I have often said. Here is one more way in which our local parents are very fortunate to be here.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 19, 2009 4:59 PM | Report abuse

I don't think the word exotic is pejorative.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 18, 2009 12:44 PM


You believe that you can make well-known anti-Asian statements and then tell us that we shouldn't be offended from your racism. You've been doing this for years!

Posted by: rush_n_crush | November 20, 2009 8:53 AM | Report abuse

Jay, I am very disappointed by your strong, yet myopic criticism of the FLES program. Your comments about FLES are based on zero experience with the program as a parent or even as a reporter (whereas Michael Alison Chandler's article was informative and fair).

On a day-to-day basis, I watch my children thrive as a result of their FLES Spanish classes. A few minutes ago when we were riding in the car, my sons were singing their ABCs in Spanish, with perfect accents, just for fun. Frequently, and without prompting, they try to share their Spanish knowledge with me, after only 2.5 months of instruction.

They have also been taking Chinese lessons from a Fairfax County FLES teacher who is fabulous -- at her school, the children who left her at the base school to go to the AAP Center contacted her and asked her to continue teaching them after school.

Thanks to his FLES-modeled exposure, my son is begging me to learn Greek. How many 9 years want to learn Greek? And he's fascinated by the arrival of the Terra Cotta Warriors.

FLES builds the foundation and the enthusiasm for all languages. It provides children with the confidence and the motivation to want to learn more about the base language and other languages because they are exposed to the inflections at the age when they can absorb accents and better retain the words.

It's time for more practical educational programs, like FLES, which will help prepare our children to be competitive members of society. When they enter the job market, our children will be sized up against their bilingual, foreign-born peers. Just look at the number of employment ads, in all areas of the job market, requiring bilingual language skills.

And with respect to those bilingual requirements of the job market, the number of AP courses our children took in HS will be irrelevant. . .

Posted by: gilbely | November 22, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse


I was disheartened to read your conclusions about Fairfax County’s foreign language program when you have not witnessed its benefits first-hand. My daughter is in the FLES program at Navy Elementary, which offers the 30-minute instruction two days a week. Her teacher sets the bar very high for other teachers with her passion, enthusiasm, and creativity. When I asked my daughter what her favorite subject in school was, she shouted “Spanish!!”

While I agree that more foreign language instruction would be better than less, those two sessions per week offer my daughter more benefit that you might imagine. Research has proven that even the smallest consistent exposure to foreign languages at an early age helps map a child’s brain to enable him or her to much more easily learn any other language later in life, with a much more authentic accent. It doesn’t matter what language the child learns – the importance is in the fact that the brain mapping occurs EARLY. Compare it to learning to read music or play an instrument – kids who have short but consistent music lessons at an early age over many years are much more likely to become world-class musicians than those who try to “cram” the same amount of time into those lessons in high school or later in life. By then, it’s too late. Fairfax County’s FLES program isn’t designed to create fluent speakers by 6th grade; it is meant to create a solid and necessary foundation to greatly facilitate solid proficiency in that (or another) language by graduation from high school. With such a small investment of classroom time and funds to create such a powerful impact, programs like this should be given priority.

I am proud to live in one of the most diverse cities in the world, in a great country that was built by immigrants. The exposure that I have had to other languages and cultures has opened doors and enriched my life (and my children’s lives) indescribably. Fairfax County’s early foreign language program is a small but important step towards giving all kids that same gift. You can’t put a price on that.

Posted by: flesatnavy | November 23, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

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