Foreign Language Education at the Elementary Level

by Erin
Written for December 4, 2008

Fluency in a foreign language has always had tremendous benefits in searching for a job or advancing in a career, and these perks are exponentially greater in today’s society than in the past. International relations and communications are essential now more than ever, and as a result, teaching a foreign language to students has become popular in many elementary schools. Some schools have even taken part in the rapidly growing trend of incorporating mandatory foreign language education into elementary curricula. As emphasis on the importance of bilingualism and knowledge of other cultures increases, some feel that foreign language education at younger ages leads to future success. However, as international competition rises and American schools continue to struggle with existing standards, is adding yet another course to children’s workload appropriate? Many factors to consider surround the integration of foreign language instruction in elementary classrooms, and it is imperative that each point be analyzed critically in order to reach a decision.

The benefits of learning a foreign language cannot be denied, and psychological research suggests that the process should start as early as possible. In the 1960s, far before early foreign language education reached its current level of popularity, linguist Noam Chomsky urged that languages be taught to children. He theorized that all humans have a “language acquisition device” in their brains, which allows them to easily learn a language when they are young, such as when a child initially learns to speak. He proposed that this “device” is active during one”s childhood, and so young people can easily pick up new languages and become fluent. Once a child reaches puberty, the language acquisition device quickly becomes less effective. While new languages can be learned at older ages, attaining proficiency becomes much more difficult (Tagliere). For example, if a student began the study of a foreign language in the ninth grade, mastery of the language would be extremely difficult, and achieving fluency within the four years of high school is close to impossible. Proponents of foreign language education argue that this is the reason that children ought to learn another language as early as possible, instead of waiting until high school, as is typically the case. Not only is it sensible to start foreign language education early in order to maximize time spent studying, linguistic evidence supports the idea.

The theories of noted child developmental psychologist Jean Piaget also augment the argument for an earlier start to foreign language education. Piaget suggested that children are, in comparison to older students, much more open to learning new things (Tagliere). They are curious about almost everything, and the discoveries made about other cultures that come with the learning of the associated language would certainly be an exciting lesson. If they are genuinely interested in learning about the customs of other peoples, then ultimately they should develop a better understanding of their worldly neighbors, resulting in a greater tolerance and acceptance of people from other countries. In this age when international relations are so crucial to all professional fields, surely this would create a more peaceful environment on local scales, and could potentially lead to improved relationships with other nations as the children grow up and incorporate their comprehension and open-mindedness about other cultures into their careers. With such high tension existing presently, a future of reduced fears as result of foreign language education is undoubtedly enticing.

Another aspect of Piaget’s cognitive development theory encourages teaching foreign languages to the youngest scholars. Piaget theorized that when children encounter an idea that does not fit into the categories of thinking that already exist in their minds, they must create new ways of thinking and synthesize new connections between their new and previous knowledge as they continue to learn (Tagliere). Other languages and cultures are foreign concepts to children, and as a result, they would have to think critically in order to grasp these new ideas. By driving a child to develop multiple ways of thinking and utilizing different perspectives to gain a comprehension of a previously unknown subject, they are at an advantage when they continue their education and proceed to be challenged by even more complex topics.

However, with a slightly deeper analysis of Piaget’s cognitive development theory, one realizes that the situations set up by proponents of early foreign language education are far too good to be true. Jean Piaget realized that children do not simply soak up knowledge like a sponge. It is actually rather difficult for them to harness foreign ideas and concepts and incorporate them into their knowledge banks. Children are, as Piaget described them, egocentric. They cannot think from any other point of view but from their own, and therefore they are incapable of understanding ideas from another perspective (Castillo). If this is the case, then how are they to acquire a genuine understanding of the rules of another language and the customs of another culture? Until a child’s brain develops more, he or she cannot grasp the necessary concepts needed to reap the benefits of their foreign language education.

By using Piaget’s theories to support the push for earlier education, proponents have put themselves at risk for the debunking of their arguments, as one needs not look far to realize that some aspects of the cognitive development theory actually contradict their claims. Instead of simply accepting at face value the information that advocates of the elementary foreign language education fad offer, parents and educators must be cautious. Not all success stories can apply to every school, and the circumstances surrounding each example must be analyzed. It is necessary to be aware of all of the facts and to keep a skeptical and critical mind when considering the addition of foreign language instruction.

Despite the potential benefits to having foreign language education in elementary school classrooms, there are many obstacles to overcome in order to create a successful program. Developing a foreign language program in itself is a difficult task for a school system, because at the elementary level, there is not a proven design known to be effective for educating young children. Therefore, in order to determine what teaching strategies are the most advantageous, some trial and error may be involved. Because there is currently no sufficient evaluation method to test an elementary program’s success (in comparison to secondary programs, which have AP and SAT subject tests that can measure proficiency), it may be a long time before a school can accurately decide if their curriculum is acceptable. Without many successful examples of elementary foreign language education programs, school districts may struggle to set realistic goals for each grade level (Rosenbusch). Students and teachers therefore have undefined expectations as to what they are supposed to accomplish. By the time the district realizes that a program is failing, many students would have already fruitlessly attempted to learn a new language. The teachers would have suffered as well, because they would have followed an unsuccessful curriculum and would then be forced to learn new approach, without the confidence that the new methods would be effective. The uncertainty surrounding the program would create an unstable atmosphere for everyone involved, which is not conducive for learning. At this stage in the popularity of foreign language in elementary schools, without many successful examples, it is difficult for a school to judge what methods would be best for its students.

The many limitations to teaching children a second language complicate the addition of foreign language to the curriculum. In elementary school, students are just beginning their academic careers. They do not have a handle on the concepts of sentence structure, grammar, or verb tenses, and their vocabularies, although sufficient in English for their level, may prove to be far too lacking when trying to learn in the other language. How can young students be expected to progress so much with a language during the five years of elementary school, when they cannot possibly understand the proper uses of verbs or other parts of speech because they have not actually been introduced to them? Learning to speak a language correctly involves background knowledge of complicated sentence structures, verb tenses, and grammatical rules. Many beginning scholars probably could not, when asked, explain the reasoning behind the way they speak in English or in their studied foreign language. Because of their insufficient knowledge of languages in general, it is highly unlikely that elementary school students would become truly proficient in a second language before reaching middle school. The expectations about the success and usefulness of these early programs are often overestimated. While students may become familiar or conversational in their new language, it is important to realize that there are barriers to teaching young children more complex subjects, and school officials must accommodate their expectations and curricula to their capabilities.

Another problem faced by schools is the lack of qualified language teachers. Most elementary school teachers are not certified to teach a foreign language, and those who know a second language may not have achieved a sufficient level of mastery to teach a class. Therefore, it is necessary to hire new teachers, and many of the teachers certified to teach foreign languages only at the secondary level, and they are not qualified to teach young children (Branaman). There is a very limited pool of teachers who are able to teach children a foreign language, and thus schools must compete to hire the best teachers. Acquiring the best teachers may require more money than that which would be typically allotted for hiring new teachers because there is such a small number of elementary foreign language teachers in the job market. Many American schools are struggling financially and certainly cannot afford to create a foreign language program for the elementary students, and adding it to the curriculum would be a grievous mistake for their budgets.

Because it is so difficult to find just one teacher for elementary students, most elementary schools would only have one language available to teach. This means that children and their parents do not have an option as to which language to learn, and the one language available may not even be the most relevant language. Spanish is the most popular language taught to elementary school students (Branaman), and although Spanish could be useful, other languages may prove to be more practical. For instance, China is becoming increasingly more prominent, and the United States’ relationship with the Chinese is only going to become more important as time progresses. However, because most elementary schools only have one option, and most commonly that language will be Spanish, fluency will likely only be attained in Spanish for most children. If this is the case, then children are not reaping the rewards of being able to have improved international relations in the future because their language options are limited by the lack of teachers and lack of funds to create opportunities to learn other languages.

Since children will have their options limited at an early stage, they may not feel motivated to try a new language when given the option in middle school or high school. After taking a single language for so long, many teenagers will choose to take the easiest option for them, which would be the language most familiar to them. They will simply continue with the same language, instead of branching into another language that could potentially be more useful for their intended career field. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to learn many languages, some students will only learn one foreign language. After studying the same language for so many years, eventually they will cease learning anything new about their language of choice, and their time spent studying would be unproductive. The foreign language education at the elementary level may have been beneficial, while their secondary education would be wasteful.

Additionally, even if a school can meet the requirements of creating a successful foreign language program, most cannot. The American education system is in a state of disarray, and schools are failing to meet acceptable standards. With another subject to fit into already busy schedules, how would teachers be able to spend enough time on instruction of essential core subjects, such as mathematics, reading, or writing? While foreign language may potentially facilitate reading and writing skills, because the language arts are interrelated, would math skills be ignored in favor of the new, fad language? Math standards have already fallen to unacceptable lows to accommodate for inadequate test scores in some schools. With even less time to emphasize the fundamentals, more schools might fail, and educational standards may drop even more, with expectations continually decreasing with increased failures. With the international competition looming, American schools cannot afford to accept mediocrity in all areas – instead, it is imperative to push for excellence in the basics first, before supplementing the elementary curriculum with secondary subjects.

While there are numerous academic and career advantages to becoming multilingual, foreign language education at the earliest stages of education may not be the wisest decision for each individual school. Despite the benefits some children have garnered from learning a second language in elementary school, not every school can imitate their successes. Past the glamour of the potentially useful trend of foreign language instruction, school officials must be cautious about the incorporation of this new subject into the elementary curriculum. Real circumstances must be considered and weighed carefully before making the choice to mandate language instruction for the youngest students. If a school can sufficiently accommodate the needs of such a program without hindering any core subjects, then it would provide an interesting opportunity for the children. However, for the many schools that cannot satisfactorily provide foreign language education, it is important to the impossibility for the moment and to continue to work on the current curriculum. Over time, the problems surrounding elementary foreign language education may be resolved, and more schools will be able to add language to children’s schedules. At this point, despite the pressure of the media and international competition, it is crucial that schools realize their individual needs and capabilities before making any significant changes to the curriculum.

Works Cited

Branaman, Lucinda and Nancy Rhodes. “Foreign Language Instruction in the United States: A National Survey of Elementary and Secondary Schools.” Center for Applied Linguistics. 3 December 2008.

Castillo, Richard. “Egocentrism.” 3 December 2008.

Rosenbusch, Marcia. “Guidelines for Starting an Elementary School Foreign Language Program.” Center for Applied Linguistics. 23 November 2008.

Tagliere, Julia. “Foreign Language Study–Is Elementary School the Right Time to Start?” 23 November 2008.–study-is-elementary school-right-time-to-start.html.

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