Teaching kids to speak a foreign language promotes literacy, open-mindedness and a wealth of other lifelong benefits.
No one knows that better than 21-year-old Karissa Musser. As a child, she says she was surrounded by people from other cultures because her mother is an instructor in the International Studies program at Arkansas Tech University. In high school, Musser learned to speak Spanish.
In the spring, she will graduate from the University of Central Arkansas with a degree in Spanish Education and English as a Second Language (ESL) Certification. Musser also teaches Spanish to second-through fourth-graders through UCA’s Community Language School (CLS).
CLS began six years ago to provide foreign language education to adults and children, says director Patricia Carlin. Spanish classes for children are held once a week for 10 weeks after school at three locations in Conway: UCA, Woodrow Cummins Elementary and Julia Lee Moore Elementary. Currently, about 30 students are enrolled, and Carlin says she hopes to expand.
Carlin says few school districts in Arkansas offer foreign language classes below eighth grade. Gibbs Magnet School of International Studies and Foreign Languages in Little Rock is one elementary school that focuses on foreign language study. Starting in kindergarten, students there study French, German or Spanish in daily 30-minute classes. The goal is novice proficiency by fifth grade. Students also learn about other countries and cultures.
When we learn to read in a second language, we recognize the symbolic nature of language.
Benefits of Foreign Language Education
Children with foreign language education have better overall literacy, critical thinking and problem solving skills. They also have a better understanding of the English language, Carlin says.
“When we learn to read in a second language, we recognize the symbolic nature of language,” she says.
Students who learn foreign languages often score higher on standardized tests, says Dave McAlpine, professor of Spanish and Second Language Education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and 2012 American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) president.
He says the earlier children learn foreign languages, the more likely they will become fully proficient. He suggests starting as early as age 2 and ACTFL recommends elementary and middle school students study foreign languages for about 90 minutes a week.
Learning a foreign language at an early age also helps develop a positive attitude toward other cultures, says Carlin, explaining that by age 10, children start “picking up prejudices.”
Musser, who is writing her thesis on the importance of teaching foreign language to kids, says: “Kids exposed to language at an early age don’t fear it and they’re better able to accept new ideas. They’re able to soak it in so quickly. It’s fun to watch. And, it opens them up to a new way of thinking.”
Anne Santifer, a native of Brazil, has been speaking to her daughter, Carly, in Portuguese ever since she was born. Carly, 4, understands Portuguese, but usually responds in English, Santifer says.
Santifer says it’s important to her that Carly learn to speak Portuguese so that she can communicate with relatives, and because it’s part of her heritage. Carly has dual citizenship, and her mom says speaking the language “gives her an option and an extra opportunity” if she ever wants to move there.
Speaking Portuguese would also help Carly learn Spanish, because the languages are so similar, says Santifer, who moved from Brazil when she was 13 and spent half of her school days in ESL classes. She says her parents insisted she and her siblings speak English at home so they all learned together.
The most efficient models for teaching foreign languages to kids are dual or total immersion, McAlpine says. Dual immersion is where half of the school day is taught in a foreign language. There are no dual or total immer- sion programs at Arkansas schools, McAlpine says, explaining that the ideal schools for this are those with large Hispanic populations. He says in other states, like Delaware, these kinds of programs have helped failing schools and suggests Arkansas should follow suit.
Parents Can Help
Musser says it’s up to parents to expose kids to foreign languages since there are few programs in the state, and there are plenty of resources to help. She suggests finding online videos and talking to community members who speak foreign languages.
Carlin recommends interactive programs that incorporate reading and verbal communication. One example is Muzzy, a BBC foreign language course for kids that includes DVDs, CDs and a storybook.
McAlpine says while these programs may help children learn vocabulary, there must be a verbal exchange of ideas to fully learn a foreign language.
“They are better than nothing if there are no alternatives,” he says. The problem with some is that “you’re not actually communicating, but exposure can be beneficial.”
Santifer says she and Carly read stories in Portuguese, and Carly also watches shows on YouTube that are dubbed in Portuguese, like “Dora the Explorer.” Also, many Netflix films can be dubbed in various languages, she says.
She says Carly is more interested in watching shows and movies in Portuguese if she’s already familiar with the English versions.
Carlin says she raised her daughter, Mimi, bilingually, by speaking and reading to her in Spanish. Mimi, now 19, is a student at Hendrix College pursing double major in Spanish and business economics, and is a Spanish tutor.
“I knew it was a gift I could give to her,” she says. And, Carlin says they often “converse in Spanish so people don’t know what we’re saying.”
Carlin says she hopes parents and school districts recognize the importance of foreign language education for elementary and middle-school age children.
“No one in our state is interested in language study, except those few of us who recognize its value,” she says.
McAlpine says nationally about 25% of schools have foreign language programs in elementary school, and in Arkansas, “you can count them on one hand.” He says “parents would have the biggest clout” with getting foreign language programs added to school curricula.