How, and When Should My Child Learn a Second Language?
Kathleen Marcos, ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics
media attention has recently been focused on the importance of early
learning experiences on brain development. Newsweek devoted a special
edition to the critical first 3 years of a child's life and indicated
that there is a "window of opportunity" for second language
learning starting at 1 year of age. A February 1997 article in Time
magazine suggested that foreign languages should be taught to children
as early as possible. With so many demands already placed on children,
parents might ask: Is it important that my child learns a second
language at a young age? Why? What options are available?
Are the Benefits of Knowing a Second Language?
addition to developing a lifelong ability to communicate with more
people, children may derive other benefits from early language instruction,
including improved overall school performance and superior problem-solving
skills. Knowing a second language ultimately provides a competitive
advantage in the workforce by opening up additional job opportunities.
of foreign languages score statistically higher on standardized
tests conducted in English. In its 1992 report, College Bound Seniors:
The 1992 Profile of SAT and Achievement Test Takers, the College
Entrance Examination Board reported that students who averaged 4
or more years of foreign language study scored higher on the verbal
section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) than those who had
studied 4 or more years in any other subject area. In addition,
the average mathematics score for individuals who had taken 4 or
more years of foreign language study was identical to the average
score of those who had studied 4 years of mathematics. These findings
are consistent with College Board profiles for previous years.
of foreign languages have access to a greater number of career possibilities
and develop a deeper understanding of their own and other cultures.
Some evidence also suggests that children who receive second language
instruction are more creative and better at solving complex problems.
The benefits to society are many.
Is It Better for My Child To Learn a Language in Elementary School?
have shown -- and experience has supported -- that children who
learn a language before the onset of adolescence are much more likely
to have native-like pronunciation. A number of experts attribute
this proficiency to physiological changes that occur in the maturing
brain as a child enters puberty. Of course, as with any subject,
the more years a child can devote to learning a language, the more
competent he or she will become. Regardless, introducing children
to alternative ways of expressing themselves and to different cultures
generally broadens their outlook and gives them the opportunity
to communicate with many more people.
Are Languages Taught to Children?
three major types of programs available in elementary schools are
language immersion programs, foreign language in elementary schools
(FLES) programs, and foreign language exploratory (FLEX) programs.
programs allow children to spend part or all of the school day learning
in a second language. In full (total) immersion programs, which
are available in a limited number of schools, children learn all
of their subjects (math, social studies, science, etc.) in the second
language. Partial immersion programs operate on the same principle,
but only a portion of the curriculum is presented in the second
language. In this type of program, a child may learn social studies
and science in Spanish or French in the morning and learn mathematics
and language arts in English in the afternoon. In both cases, the
second language is the medium for content instruction rather than
the subject of instruction. Children enrolled in immersion programs
work toward full proficiency in the second language and usually
reach a higher level of competence than those participating in other
FLES programs are more common than immersion programs. A second
language is presented as a distinct subject, much as science or
social studies. Typically, the course is taught three to five times
per week. Depending on the frequency of the classes and the opportunity
for practice, children in these programs may attain substantial
proficiency in the language studied.
FLEX programs introduce students to other cultures and to language
as a general concept. Time is spent exploring one or more languages
or presenting information about language itself. The emphasis is
not on attaining proficiency. Although some proficiency may be attained
with a once- or twice- per-week program emphasizing the use of a
specific language, parents should not expect children to attain
fluency in such programs. These programs, however, can provide a
basis for later learning.
a Second Language Interfere With My Child's English Ability?
most cases, learning another language enhances a child's English
ability. Children can learn much about English by learning the structure
of other languages. Common vocabulary also helps children learn
the meaning of new words in English. Experimental studies have shown
that no long-term delay in native English language development occurs
in children participating in second language classes, even in full
fact, children enrolled in foreign language programs score statistically
higher on standardized tests conducted in English. A number of reports
have demonstrated that children who have learned a second language
earn higher SAT scores, particularly on the verbal section of the
test. One study showed that by the fifth year of an immersion program,
students outperformed all comparison groups and remained high academic
achievers throughout their schooling.
My Child Is Enrolled in a Language Program at School, What Can I
Do To Help?
importantly, encourage your child's interest in the language and
in other cultures. Show him or her that you value the ability to
speak a second language. Attend cultural events that feature music,
dance, or food from the country or countries where the language
is spoken. If possible, provide some books, videos, or other materials
in the second language. If you are familiar with the language yourself,
read to your child. Summer programs offering international exchange
are suitable for older children and offer valuable opportunities
to speak a second language and explore a different culture firsthand.
Children normally live with a host family, which provides them with
a safe and sheltered environment where they can practice their language
My Child's School Does Not Offer Language Study, What Can I Do To
Help Establish a Program?
to the school principal about your interest in seeing a program
established. Determine what type of program best fits your needs.
Join with other parents interested in starting up a program. Discuss
the possibility at a PTA meeting. Write to the teachers, the school
board, and the school district headquarters. Many resources are
available to help parents and teachers establish a second language
program. For general information on early language programs, contact
the following organizations:
for Language Learning
P.O. Box 4962
Culver City, CA 90231
Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages
6 Executive Plaza
Yonkers, NY 10701-6801
Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics
1118 22nd Street NW
Washington, DC 20037-1214
Toll free: 800-276-9834
National FLES* Institute
The University of Maryland at Baltimore
Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics
Baltimore, MD 21228
Network for Early Language Learning
Center for Applied Linguistics
1118 22nd Street NW
Washington, DC 20037-1214
Z. A. 1987. "Neurobiological Foundations for Foreign Language
Accents."International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language
Teaching 25 (3): 203-13. EJ 361 139.
S. 1984. Profiles, College-Bound Seniors, 1984. New York: College
Entrance Examination Board. ED 253 157.
K. W., and D. T. Mizokawa. 1991. "Additive-Bilingual (Immersion)
Education: Cognitive and Language Development." Language Learning
41 (3): 413-29. EJ 432 977.
Entrance Examination Board. 1992. College- Bound Seniors. 1992 Profile
of SAT and Achievement Test Takers. National Report. New York: College
Entrance Examination Board. ED 351 352.
Entrance Examination Board. 1982. Profiles, College-Bound Seniors,
1981. New York: College Entrance Examination Board. ED 223 708.
T. C. 1987. "Foreign Language Study and SAT-Verbal Scores."
Modern Language Journal 71 (4): 381-87. EJ 363 615.
H., and C. A. Pesola. 1994. Languages and Children: Making the Match.
Second Edition. White Plains, NY: Longman. ED 376 717.
S. (Speaker). 1995. Gray Matters: The Developing Brain. (Final Script
of Radio Broadcast) Madison, WI: Wisconsin Public Radio Association.
F. 1987. Learning Through Two Languages. Cambridge, MA: Newbury
J. Spring/Summer 1997. "Cultivating the Mind." Newsweek
Special Issue: Your Child -- From Birth to Three: 38-39.
G. 1995. Focus on FLES*: Planning and Implementing FLES* Programs
(Foreign Language in Elementary Schools). Baltimore, MD: National
M. 1993. Foreign Language Immersion Programs. ERIC Digest. Washington,
DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics. ED 363 141.
J. M. February 3, 1997. "Fertile Minds." Time 149 (5):
M. S. 1990. "Age and Accent in a Second Language: A Reply to
James Emil Flege." Applied Linguistics 11 (1): 73-90. EJ 405
M. H. 1995. Guidelines for Starting an Elementary School Foreign
Language Program. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Languages and Linguistics. ED 383 227.
W. P., V. P. Collier, and M. Abbott. 1993. "Academic Achievement
Through Japanese, Spanish, or French: The First Two Years of Partial
Immersion." Modern Language Journal 77 (2): 170-80. EJ 465
D. April 1996. "Heads Up: Time To Go Bilingual?" Smartkid
1 (4): 45-49.
Americans fluent in other languages
enhance our economic competitiveness abroad, improve global communication,
and maintain our political and security interests. One thing is for sure, learning a second language will definitely get the attention of recruiters from colleges such as Everest Universities.