Children should start learning a foreign language in kindergarten and continue through high school, says Wake Forest University Associate Professor of Education Mary Lynn Redmond.
“Learning languages helps increase listening ability, memory, creativity and critical thinking- all of which are thinking processes that increase learning in general,” says Redmond, a past president of the National Network for Early Language Learning.
In addition to developing thinking skills, foreign language study exposes children to other ways of looking at the world, she says.
To those who consider foreign language study in elementary school a “frill,” Redmond stresses that foreign language education supports the “core” curriculum. When done right, foreign language instruction uses themes that support the elementary curriculum including math, science, social studies and language arts.
“The thematic approach is a wonderful way to do this so that children are always learning the language for real communication tasks such as ordering food in a restaurant, buying clothes, asking for directions, describing an event or a person and so on,” Redmond says.
“Correlation studies show students who have had several years of foreign language do better on SATs, particularly the verbal part,” Redmond says.
Becoming fluent in foreign language takes years, although children tend to absorb foreign languages more easily than older students and adults, she says. She emphasizes
the importance of an unbroken sequence of foreign language study in grades K-12 to gain
the level of proficiency needed to communicate with people around the world in other languages.
Starting early can translate into an advantage in the work force, too, Redmond says.
“The work force has an increased demand for people who can speak foreign languages at a sophisticated level. This is not limited to the corporate world. People are looking for mechanics, social workers and medical professionals, too,” she says.
“Parents are becoming more aware of the value of early language to the cognitive learning of the child,” she says. “But, most of the legislators are still in the mindset of 25 years ago, not recognizing what neurologists have learned about what learning language does for the brain.”
If their child’s elementary school does not offer an early foreign language program, Redmond suggests that parents learn about programs in the elementary grades used by other school systems. She recommends finding out how much classroom time is devoted to foreign language study and how well lessons incorporate content areas like math, science and social studies. Then, parents can advocate building the foreign language program in their child’s school.
“School administrators have to think out of the box and look at foreign language study as a regular part of the curriculum,” Redmond says. “Parents can help.”
At Wake Forest, she directs foreign language education and supervises student teachers. She also performs French marionette shows in elementary schools to teach children about French language and culture.
For the elementary grades, using games, stuffed animals, puppets, giant
storybooks and other visual, hands-on approaches work well in teaching languages,” says
Redmond, who edited the 1999 book, “Teacher to Teacher: Model Lessons for K-8 Foreign Language.”
Effective language instruction needs to involve more than colors, numbers and shapes, she says.
Redmond has taught French in the elementary grades through the university level and has served as a consultant to school districts in the development of the K-12 foreign language curriculum.
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