Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

World Language Instruction Should Start in Elementary School. Here's Why.

May 31, 2017

Vanessa Torres Chip Huggins 4 1000w

By Sabrina Skacan

Parlez-vous français? Sí, hablo español. Grande, forse ti prego, dimmi il tempo? Ito ay 01:00, pagsapit ng tanghalian. Danke!

Many educational experts, including Milken Educators, believe that studying another language should start in elementary school. Why? It's fun, although of course that's stating the obvious. But world language study comes with other kinds of benefits, too: personal (we gain self-confidence), social (we can communicate with others) and intellectual (we build brain power).

Why start learning a language when you're young? Before puberty, children's sponge-like brains respond to procedural memory—unconscious learning from observing and doing. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's McGovern Institute for Brain Research, children's neural circuits enable them to form words and sentences more easily from what they experience around them. Vanessa Torres (SC '16), a Spanish language teacher at Nursery Road Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina, concurs based on her years in the classroom: "It's easy [for children] to achieve native-like pronunciation in any language, but after puberty this becomes much more difficult."

Here's why seasoned educators say world language instruction should start in elementary school:

  • Brain boost. Learning another language benefits the cognitive process, improving problem-solving skills, cognitive development and "executive functioning." Executive functioning skills—the ability to prioritize tasks, control impulses and make decisions—get a particular boost from learning another language, especially in dual-language learning environments, according to Dr. Judith Kroll, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside.
  • Better memory. Learning a new set of grammar rules and vocabulary strengthens mental capacity and overall memory. The right and left hemispheres process learning and memorization in different ways, making language study like a gym membership for the brain. "Research reveals that being bilingual has been shown to delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer's," points out Vanessa.
  • Improved English. In order to master a second language, you're forced to focus on the mechanics of grammar, conjugations, usage, etc. Thinking about sentence structure and composition helps you recognize and adhere to the "rules" of your mother tongue.
  • Easier multitasking. Switching back and forth between two languages makes your brain better at switching back and forth between subjects in general.
  • Good grades. Students learning another language experience improved achievement over their academic careers, according to The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Some studies show higher scores on standardized tests, enriched reading comprehension and higher academic performance in other disciplines.
  • Love thy neighbor. Kids who learn other languages also learn about other cultures, which builds bridges within diverse student populations and lays the foundation for understanding and tolerance of others' thoughts, viewpoints, customs and beliefs. Kimberly Freeman (SC '15), who teaches Latin in South Carolina's Lexington School District One, enrolled her own two children in the district's Mandarin partial immersion program. When a new student from China joined the second grade earlier this year, it motivated Kimberly's daughter to use her nascent Mandarin language skills to reach out. "Once she started to get to know her new friend, she designed a game to play with him at recess and invited friends to join in," says Kimberly. "Not only is she befriending him using her language skills, but she is also developing an element of interculturalism to see people from around the world as precious and worthy of our grace and compassion."
  • Back to the future. Being bilingual will give America's youth a competitive edge during college and in their careers. Many colleges have world language requirements for undergraduate admission. And, as business gets ever more global, corporations and organizations need and covet multilingual job candidates. Starting young means students have many years to hone their language skills and cultivate their view of the world as a not-so-distant place.
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