Foreign Language in Elementary School

A generation ago, American students generally had an opportunity to learn another language starting in high school. Depending on what part of the country you lived in the two main languages usually offered were Spanish and/or French, and if you had a resourceful school, you might be able to learn German instead of the other two. Rarely were you allowed to learn two or three other languages simultaneously-basically you stuck with one for a year or two at the most.

Over the last 10-15 years, there has been a shift to make foreign languages available to elementary students in both public and private school settings. In addition, more than just the European languages are available to young students. There are two main reasons for this shift:

1. The realization that younger students are more adept at learning multiple languages.

2. Understanding that in the globalized economy we live in, speaking and reading more than one language is a necessity. The U.S. Department of Education recently pointed out in a Washington Post Article that more than 200 million children in China are studying English in primary school, but only 24,000 students in U.S. schools are learning Chinese.

The proliferation of the language industry has made learning key words from other than English languages via audio tapes and learning software very easy through immersion learning tactics. Through immersion learning students learn about the people, traditions, culture, history, food and music. Learning a language is not only about learning the grammar and sentence structure, but also learning about the people and their customs who speak the language. For some people immersion learning might mean having the opportunity to take a trip to a particular country that speaks the language you are learning. For the majority of us it might mean watching a video on the Discovery channel or getting some books and audio tapes or computer cd’s from the local library to enhance our understanding of that particular culture.

A relative of mine had an opportunity to study abroad for a year in college, she did try to prepare prior to leaving by learning as much as possible about the customs, people and the language, which is a difficult one to learn as a second language. She found that she learned the most when she was basically forced to communicate in their national language in order to survive. In other words-she was completely immersed in the culture.

Elementary school teachers are moving toward this immersion type learning through bringing special guests who speak the language being studied, having parties with food from that region and creating musical instruments that are particular to that culture.

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