While foreign language instruction has been around for decades as part of public school curriculums, it has predominantly been taught at the secondary school levels. According to Education Week, 91 percent of public schools offer foreign language instruction at the high school level, with only about 58 percent of middle schools and 25 percent of elementary schools offering foreign language instruction. But recently, more public schools have been striving to offer foreign language instruction, especially in the states of Delaware and Utah, and in more languages.
Earlier is Better
The Saline School District in Saline, Michigan, sees great benefits in starting foreign language instruction as early as kindergarten. According to The Saline Reporter, the district plans on starting world language instruction for kindergarten through third grade in 2013. Assistant Superintendent Stephen Laatsch says, "If a student starts when they are young, they can absorb more.” In order to fully prepare students for a global economy, the district wants students to become fluent in other languages. To achieve fluency, students need to start instruction sooner. Foreign language instruction has also been associated with higher cognitive abilities, giving student advantages during standardized testing and in higher education.
Types of Programs
The Robertsdale Elementary School in Robertsdale, Alabama, plans on using the popular program Muzzy to deliver weekly lessons to pre-K and elementary school students. The Davidson Elementary School in North Carolina has a partnership with Davidson College in which college students deliver weekly lessons in Spanish. The school also has a Chinese club. Other schools throughout the country have hired foreign language teachers to offer regular language lessons as part of the curriculum.
Unlike schools that offer separate foreign language classes or isolated lessons, immersion programs encourage true bilingualism, with students receiving regular instruction in a second language for part of the day or specific days during the week. The State describes Ballentine Elementary School in South Carolina, which has elementary school classes taught completely in Spanish once a week. There are nearby schools with similar programs in German and French. At Ballentine Elementary, one of the teachers, Dianne Mundo, hails from Puerto Rico and feels that immersion programs are the best way to learn a second language. Mundo feels that more than one day a week would be even better, as immersion “is the only way you can really learn.”
Education Week also reports that there are now 415 immersion programs, mostly in Spanish, taking place in 31 states and Washington, D.C. The Caesar Rodney School District in Delaware has half-day immersion programs in Mandarin Chinese. This was made possible with grant money from the state’s Governor's World Language Expansion Initiative.
It seems that rural and low-income school districts get fewer opportunities to start early foreign language and immersion programs. Since new staff often has to be hired to teach world languages, many schools simply lack the funds to be able to afford such enrichment opportunities. Kevin Fitzgerald, the superintendent of the Caesar Rodney Schools, also believes that many districts are simply not aware of the multiple benefits that early foreign language instruction brings. However, President Obama has pledged a commitment to providing funding for increased foreign language instruction at the elementary school level, and more states are offering assistance at the state department levels. It seems that everyone is beginning to understand that in order to compete globally with countries that start foreign language instruction as soon as students enter school, the United States will need to increase early foreign language learning opportunities.
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