Foreign language study important in elementary school

As the No Child Left Behind Act and budget woes put pressure on many school systems to cut back on foreign language study in the elementary grades, Mary Lynn Redmond advocates for strengthening foreign language programs.

Redmond, director of foreign language education and associate professor of education at Wake Forest University, is also the executive secretary of the National Network for Early Language Learning.

“Children should start learning a foreign language in kindergarten and continue through high school,” Redmond says. “Learning languages helps increase listening ability, memory, creativity and critical thinking – all of which are thinking processes that increase learning in general.”

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 holistic instructional approach used to teach foreign language incorporates many different strategies within a lesson, Redmond says. This enriches the learning process and appeals to students’ various learning styles.

“This is important in light of the way No Child Left Behind focuses so much attention on the subjects of math, reading and writing due to testing requirements,” Redmond says. “The courses that address many different ways of thinking and learning such as foreign language are being marginalized in order to allow adequate time for the courses that are tested. This is leaving less time to include experiences and instruction that provide a well-rounded curriculum and educate the whole child.”

“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 uninterrupted 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, she says. “This is not limited to the corporate world. Employers are looking for mechanics, social workers and medical professionals, too.

Parents are becoming more aware of the value of early language to the cognitive learning of the child. 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.”

“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. She leads an annual language-immersion summer camp for children in grades 1-6.

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