Foreign Language Learning: An Early Start

By — U.S. Department of Education
Updated on Mar 8, 2010

During the 1960s, the idea of introducing foreign languages in the elementary school was a popular one, and elementary school foreign language programs were numerous. Interest in early language programs has resurfaced in recent years, and the number of programs being implemented is increasing. Many states are requiring the study of a foreign language at the elementary level. Louisiana, for example, has mandated that foreign language study begin in grade 4.

For a local school or community seeking to implement elementary school language programs, it is important that a rationale--reasons why the program should be incorporated into the curriculum--be developed to meet the needs and priorities of the particular area or institution the program(s) will serve. "School boards and parents organizations need reasons and evidence before making a commitment of time and resources to a new program" (Curtain, & Pesola, 1988, p. 1). A rationale should address benefits of language learning, the choice of languages to be taught, and the type of instruction to be used. A convincing rationale will help secure a place for foreign language education in the elementary school.

Basic Rational for Beginning Foreign Language Study in the Elementary

A general rationale for teaching foreign languages in the elementary school includes the following:

Longer sequence of instruction/Achievement of proficiency.

Studies show that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time devoted to language study and the language proficiency that the students attain (Curtain & Pesola, 1988). It can be argued, therefore, that children who begin foreign language study in elementary school, and who continue such study for a number of years, have a better chance of developing a high level of foreign language proficiency than do students whose foreign language instruction begins in the post elementary school years. Because the level of proficiency plays a role in the achievement of positive benefits from knowledge of a foreign language, the economic, political, social, and intellectual benefits of foreign language proficiency are gained, in most cases, when students achieve advanced levels of language skill and cultural understanding.

Development of a global attitude.

During their elementary school years, children are open to ideas of global understanding. Study of a foreign language and culture can serve as an important vehicle by which to expand their intercultural views. According to many child psychologists, children reach an important developmental stage at the age of ten (Lambert, & Klineberg, 1967). "Children are in the process of moving from egocentricity to reciprocity, and information introduced before the age of ten is eagerly received" (Curtain, & Pesola, 1988, p. 4). With this expansion, children will have the freedom to explore the wealth of values and perceptions of the world; they will not be restricted to any one narrow view of life or one limited set of options (Carpenter & Torney, 1973).

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