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Start That Bilingual Education Yesterday!

The best age for a child to learn a second language is ... drumroll, please ... before age 7. And the earlier, the better. That's according to a team of international researchers studying the issue, reports the Associated Press.

Babies who are raised bilingual learn two languages in the same time as a child learning one, says Dr. Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington.

Now, while this may not be "news" to many of us who have read before that children learn language best at early ages, it does beg the question of why so few schools offer second language classes to young children. Sure, there are a few preschools and some daycares that teach languages. A few lucky parents can lottery in or pay for language immersion elementary school programs. And some parents, as we've discussed before, talk in different languages to make their children bilingual right from the start.

But why in this global economy do all schools not offer even a half-hour one day a week in another language? Is it all No Child Left Behind or are there other reasons? Do you think all elementary schools should be required to teach children a second language?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  July 21, 2009; 3:00 PM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers
Previous: When Trusting Yourself Is a Crime | Next: At What Age?


I switched schools a lot. My elementary for 2d and 3d grades had Spanish class a few times a week. I then took Spanish in college, and I can say all I remembered, and only vaguely, was numbers and colors. Maybe if I had stayed in that school and taken more years of it I would have learned it.
Early language learning needs to be consistent and lengthy... and I don't think our public schools can accomodate that. To make it work system wide, one or two languages would have to be mandated as the mandatory second language offered. Otherwise you end up with kids that were learning German in one school moving to an area where it's Spanish, or you have a child from an area where its not offered going into 5th grade in a school where the kids have been learning it since kindergarten, so what does she do during the Spanish language class? Draw? Go sit with the kindergarteners and learn there?
Our children are behind in math and science. That's where we need to focus our attention. I've traveled to 5 continents and always been able to get by with just English. When I try my Spanish or French, they automatically default to English instead of giving me a chance to practice.

Posted by: aimeeconnelly | July 21, 2009 3:22 PM | Report abuse

probably because once a week is as good, or worse than no lessons at all. I grew up tri-lingual (English, Chinese and German,) and I can attest that you need lessons or to talk everyday for lessons to be effective. I later learned French, and my French was never as good as my German.

Posted by: slstirland | July 21, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Half an hour a week is completely useless, come to that, 3 hours a week provides such slow progress it's practically useless as well (I mean if you think kids forget math during the summer break, try a foreign language, the entire year is gone by the time school is back). The only reason I'm bilingual is that I spoke English with my American mother and French with my French father. Growing up in France, the school had almost no English instruction during primary school. I think I had an hour or two or week in primary school and we spent it learning animals and silly songs, over and over again. I wasn't spared because my accent was good (you can imagine, I was fluent in both at the age) so I basically was helping teach it, even in primary school. Anyway, I only made meaningful progress in terms of literacy, reading, etc when I started attending a bilingual program that went from 6-12th grade with 10 hours a week of instructions, at my level, in English.

Posted by: ajbouche | July 21, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

To add one more thing, my French literacy and reading skills were fine from the start (I learned how to read, write, and count in French first). What I meant to say on English was that I really started using it for more than communicating with friends and family when I started attending the bilingual program. I read Dickens, Shakespeare, and had history and geography in both English and French. We did a lot of comparative literature etc. The bilingual program is the reason why if I wanted I could do my job at a think tank in either French and English. Friends who dropped out of the program are simply not as fluent in their writing abilities in particular and their ability to discuss technical and complex problems in both languages is also limited.

Posted by: ajbouche | July 21, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

I hate to be grammar cop, but it doesn't "beg" the question, it "raises" the question. "Begging" the question is the opposite (when a statement answers the question it raises).

Why don't we offer language programs? Because we don't think we need to for our kids to succeed. Kids in Europe speak multiple languages because they have to; when I was in Alsace, German lessons began in first grade, English in fifth, because that's what their kids needed in daily life. The US is so much bigger -- and our language so much more dominant globally -- that the vast majority of Americans can live their whole lives without needing a foreign language.

Would I like our kids to learn more? Absolutely. Small picture, learning French was a tremendous education in English grammar, because the constant compare/contrast made me much consciously aware of grammatical constructions that I had always assumed or taken for granted. Big picture, there are all sorts of benefits in terms of cultural understanding, how much you learn about how people read, write, think, etc. when you experience it in their own language, how much bigger the world seems, wider career prospects in the global village, etc.

But at the same time, I can't exactly fault the schools for not focusing on all of that. They are already pressed for time and money teaching their current programs. I can't blame them for not diverting some of that limited time and money to something that isn't a "need" for most of the population.

Posted by: laura33 | July 21, 2009 4:40 PM | Report abuse

it does beg the question of why so few schools offer second language classes to young children

I think it is clear that this is a resources issue combined with the fact that as Americans who speak the dominant world language, we don't feel the need to learn other languages as much as people in other countries.

Our schools are stretched thin trying to teach the basics. Learning another language, while certainly a good thing, is not considered a fundamental in the US.

But I do think it is wonderful for parents to expose their kids to a second language when possible. Both my kids are bilingual, and my husband and I are as well. I think learning another language is not only useful as a practical matter, but also a wonderful way to learn about other cultures and perspectives. In the US, we tend to be pretty ethnocentric.

I also think that among some populations, there is a deep distrust of foreigners, and a sense that we need to cling to our culture and defend it from the invading hoardes of non English speakers. I have seen that play out in the On Balance blog and wonder if this sentiment might not also play into the fact that US public education does not truly promote foreign language education as a priority.

Posted by: emily8 | July 21, 2009 5:23 PM | Report abuse

My husband worries that his daughter who was only 3 when she came here will forget her native tongue. Just the other day, he said that both himself and his ex have problems understanding her. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that I am the only one in her life that consistently speaks English to her, her English is actually pretty understandable these days and I have few problems with understanding her.

His son came over at the age of 5. His English is not perfect nor is his Spanish but you can easily communicate with him in either language. Our hope is that he will grow up completely bilingual.

My husband and I can both get along in our second language. We are certainly not bilingual. As an English speaker, I have to say that it has been helpful to learn a second language. Over the last 7 or 8 years, I have used my second language to perform my job. In the future, I would expect to use my second language more and more. This world is getting smaller and not everybody can communicate clearly in English.

Posted by: Billie_R | July 22, 2009 7:25 AM | Report abuse

I think school districts really need to consider what they want to accomplish with a foreign language. If the ultimate goal is fluency, meaning students should be able to function in their second language as well as their first, then they will need some kind of immersion program. I'm not sure that's a wise use of their time or resources when so many kids seem to be struggling with basic subjects taught in English.

The way most schools teach foreign languages is, at best, a boost to their English skills for, as another poster said, the compare/contrast aspect of translation, and maybe enough to communicate on vacation. True fluency, when starting from scratch, is incredibly difficult unless the student is exposed to the language at home and in society for an extended period of time. I started Spanish in 8th grade, and had three semesters of college level Spanish before studying abroad in Spain. When I arrived, I joked I was the opposite of illiterate--I could read and write, but not really speak. I came home pretty fluent, and have worked hard to stay that way. I don't know anyone who came close to fluency in the classroom. They either had parents or extended family who spoke their second language or they spent an extended period abroad for school or work. I certainly think exposure to a second language is valuable, but I think it's unrealistic to think the public schools can regularly turn out bilingual students. I think this is true with European schools as well. Many of the people I met who spoke English fluently went above and beyond the regular course of studies to learn it, and I met many, many Europeans who didn't speak English at all.

Posted by: sjneal | July 22, 2009 8:56 AM | Report abuse

I think the main reason most schools don't start foreign languages younger are money and standardized testing. With budgets as tight as they are, schools can't afford the programs. And even if they can, that's time taken away from preparing for the all-important standardized tests.

One of the reasons we decided to send our kids to their school (it's a charter school) is because they start Spanish in kindergarten.

Posted by: dennis5 | July 22, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

There are a number of dual language programs in Alexandria, VA, where we live. Primo and Secondo have been raised dual language Spanish and English (but no Spanglish!) Mom and the nanny spoke Spanish to them and I handled English. They were Spanish dominant before starting preschool and have now moved closer to blaanced.

A big point in favor of dual language is that it's great for development. You'll get some delays in language acquisition, but gain flexibility in usage.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | July 23, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

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