Foreign Language Learning: An Early Start (page 2)

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

Enhancement of cognitive skills.

 Foreign language learning enhances cognitive development and basic skills performance in elementary school children. In her article in FLESNEWS (Spring, 1989), Marianne Fuchsen wrote that "Foreign language study necessitates the acquisition of new learning strategies because it is foreign; basic to preparation for a changing world is the development of abilities to meet new challenges" (p.6). This idea that exposure to "foreignness" can lead to cognitive change was well known to Piaget; he believed that cognitive development takes place when a child is faced with an idea or experience that does not fit into his or her realm of understanding. The cognitive conflict becomes the catalyst for new thinking. Thus, foreign language study becomes the catalyst for cognitive and psychological development in young children because of the "conflict" that such study presents.

Children who are adequately exposed to two languages at an early age experience gains: they are more flexible and creative, and they reach high levels of cognitive development at an earlier age than their monolingual peers (Hamayan, 1986).

Enhancement of communication skills.

 The study of foreign languages has also been shown to have positive effects on memory and listening skills. While children are developing the ability to communicate in a different language system, they also learn to see language as a phenomenon in itself. Children become aware that language and its objects are independent of one another, and that there are many ways in which to refer to one object. This may also be the reason why language learning skills transfer from one language learning experience to another. Knowledge of one foreign language facilitates the study of a second foreign language (Curtain & Pesola, 1988).

Personal Benefits.

 Many personal benefits can be gained from the study of foreign languages; individuals who study foreign languages and cultures help themselves toward international and intercultural communication. They expose themselves to a global perspective, and enhance their career potential in the ever growing arena of international trade and cross-cultural professional exchange. (For more information on the personal benefits gained through foreign language study, see the ERIC Digest entitled Personal Benefits of Foreign Language Study, by H. Jarold Weatherford, 1986.)

Information Sources For Developing a Rationale

Research reports and studies can provide useful information on developing a foreign language program rationale. Strength through Wisdom, the President's Commission report on foreign language and international studies, provides a series of studies that highlight the need for providing students with opportunities for studying foreign languages. Paul Simon's book, The Tongue-Tied American: Confronting the Foreign Language Crisis (1987), is a very useful source for constructing a rationale for foreign language learning. The National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983) states that "achieving proficiency in a foreign language takes from four to six years" and  suggests that such study should begin in the elementary school (Curtain, & Pesola, 1988, p.3). 

State curriculum guides can also provide helpful information on developing a rationale. In Wisconsin's A Guide to Curriculum Planning in Foreign Language, for example, a number of long and short-term benefits of studying foreign languages are listed, including facilitating the learning of additional foreign languages, improving knowledge of geography, and achieving higher SAT and ACT scores, especially in verbal areas.

School curriculum guides are particularly important sources of a rationale for foreign language study at both the elementary and secondary level. "The local curriculum and philosophy provide the best information about the values and priorities of the school and community in which the language program will take place" (Curtain, & Pesola, 1988, p.7).


If education is a means by which to prepare children for the complicated world that they inhabit, to give them tools with which to understand new challenges, then the educational system should offer an expansive curriculum as early as possible. Research has shown that through foreign language study, elementary school children receive the opportunity to expand their thinking, to acquire global awareness, to extend their understanding of language as a phenomenon, and to reach an advanced proficiency level in that foreign language. Parents, educators, and policymakers should find these reasons more than enough to prove the benefits of beginning foreign language study in the elementary school.


Carpenter & Torney, J. (1973). Beyond the melting pot. In P. N. Markum & J. L. Land  (Eds.) "Children and intercultural education" (pp.14-24). Washington, DC: Association for Childhood Education International.

Curtain, H. A. & Pesola, C. A. (1988) "Languages and children--Making the match." Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Fuchsen, M. (Spring, 1989). Starting language early: A rationale. "FLESNEWS, 2" (3),1, 6-7.

Lambert, W. E. & Klineberg, O. (1967). "Children's views of foreign people." New York:Appleton-Century-Crofts.

President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies. (1979). Government Printing Office.

Simon, P. (1980). "The tongue-tied American. Confronting the foreign language crisis." New York: Continuum Publishing Corporation.

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