Foreign Language Exploratory Programs: Introduction to Language Learning. ERIC Digest.

ERIC Identifier: ED399761
Publication Date: 1996-06-00
Author: Marcos, Kathleen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.

Foreign Language Exploratory Programs: Introduction to Language Learning. ERIC Digest.

Foreign Language Exploratory or Foreign Language Experience (FLEX) programs offer one approach to initiating foreign language instruction for children. Many of these programs are currently underway in U.S. schools. While it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of FLEX programs in existence, a survey conducted by the Center for Applied Linguistics (Rhodes & Oxford, 1988) reported that 41% of U.S. elementary schools offering foreign language instruction had FLEX programs. Statistics on the number of middle schools offering FLEX programs are unavailable.


Most FLEX programs aim to give students a foundation for foreign language study; some programs introduce basic phrases in a number of languages in order to sharpen listening skills and familiarize students with the notion that thoughts can be expressed in another language. These programs often help students to decide which language to study in later grades. They may also serve to boost language enrollment in a school system. FLEX courses frequently offer cultural information that can help students develop an appreciation of other societies and customs. In some cases, the primary focus is on world cultures; these programs are usually incorporated into the social studies curriculum.

Included in the elementary or middle school curriculum, FLEX programs are conducted with frequent, regular classes in a short time frame or with short, less regular classes over a longer time period. Programs are usually not part of an articulated sequence (Met & Rhodes, 1990), although they may be taught in preparation for sequential courses. A small percentage of teaching time (1-5% per week) is dedicated to a typical FLEX program, with the time spent exploring one or more languages or presenting information about language itself. Instruction is often given in English (Curtain & Pesola, 1994). FLEX courses may be taught by itinerant language teachers or regular classroom teachers. Language proficiency and teacher certification vary according to program goals and state certification requirements.

Students should not expect to achieve fluency in a language at the end of a FLEX course. It is important that both students and parents are clear on this point. According to Lipton (1992), "FLEX is primarily a language/culture/motivational program."


The broad classifications of programs outlined below are suggested by Curtain and Pesola (1994). A fourth type, the "Combination course," may contain elements of both general language and language potpourri offerings. Usefulness of foreign languages in the work world and careers in languages may also be discussed.

"General language" courses teach basic linguistic concepts such as the existence of language families (e.g., Romance, Germanic) and their relationships to one another. They may examine artificial languages, such as Esperanto, computer languages, or Morse code, or explore non-spoken languages, such as signed languages. There may be discussion of the modern and classical languages available for later study in the school system. A common objective of these programs is to educate students about general language principles in order to facilitate future foreign language learning. Proficiency in a foreign language is not a goal. Such programs may be approached as part of the language arts curriculum.

"Language potpourri" or "world language study" courses are sampler programs allocating a limited number of classes to each of several languages. Thus, three weeks could be spent learning selected basic aspects of Spanish and a few phrases in that language, while the next three weeks could be spent on French and the last three on German. Some schools use the opportunity to introduce Latin or Greek. The purpose of these programs is similar to that of the general language course; in addition, they may help students decide which language to study in later grades. Students learn phrases in various languages but do not attain any degree of proficiency. Kennedy and De Lorenzo (1985) refer to this program type as "trial language study".

"Single language offering." This option provides limited introductory exposure to one language that students may later be able to choose for further study. In general, limited or no proficiency in the language should be expected. Lipton (1995) reports that some proficiency may be attained with a once- or twice-a-week program that emphasizes functional language and cultural awareness.


Provo City Schools (Utah). As part of the middle school exploratory curriculum, a combination FLEX program was initiated at Grades 7 and 8 to increase interest in languages and to allow students a view of "how" to learn a language before studying one. The program offered three-week segments on French, German, Spanish, and Russian; two weeks on Japanese; segments on cultural geography and cultural issues and language histories and patterns; and one- to three-day modules on Arabic, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, Finnish, Navajo, and Swahili. French, German, Spanish, Russian, and Japanese were chosen because they are offered for sequential study in the school district. Other languages were chosen because introductory materials were available. The program used commercial language books, developed much of its own instructional material, and used resources provided by a local outreach center. Although the program has been discontinued due to staffing considerations, the school district was satisfied that it helped students develop an interest in languages and provided guidance on learning a language (P. Buckner, personal communication, March 1996).

Twin Falls School District 411 (Idaho). Three consecutive single-language sessions for eighth graders were undertaken at two junior high schools to boost enrollment in languages and promote the establishment of a German sequential program in the junior high. The program is meant to serve as an overview of languages in general and of French, German, and Spanish specifically. Students first spend two weeks studying linguistics and the nature of language acquisition, then 12 weeks studying one of the above languages. The individual language session concludes with the students giving a cultural talk on one aspect of the language studied. Students then move on to the next language for 12 weeks and conclude with the last of the three languages. Materials used include "Learning About Languages (A Comprehensive FLEX Activity Book)" and the "Exploring French," "Exploring Spanish," and "Exploring German" series. The books are used as a framework that is supplemented with a good deal of teacher-developed material. The initial goal of establishing a German course was met. Because the FLEX program is a "broad-brush" approach, there is no real duplication of effort once students are enrolled in one of the year-long language programs (S. Waters, personal communication, March 1996).

Prince George's County Public Schools (Maryland). This school system offers a language potpourri/world language study program at both the elementary and middle school levels. This approach gives all students the opportunity to explore various languages and the cultures of the people who speak them. The course helps students understand how languages are related, with special focus on Latin and the Romance languages. The relationship of English to other languages is studied through roots, prefixes, suffixes, and related and borrowed words. Eight schools participate at Grade 5 (a year-long course); 26 participate at Grade 7 (a semester course).

At the end of the course, students are expected to (1) integrate the use of foreign expressions into the cultural situations where these expressions or words are normally used; (2) show how concepts and beliefs are associated with the target languages and the native speakers' day-to-day way of life; and (3) explore the relationship of other languages to English. Students are generally introduced to Spanish, French, Japanese, and Swahili, although some teachers also include German, Russian, or Latin in the curriculum. Special student packets for each language are created by teachers and include critical thinking activities and curriculum indicators.

"Exploring Languages," the" Exploring Spanish" and "Exploring French series from EMC, and the "Peoples and Places" series from Silver Burdett are used in the classroom. Over 5,000 students take the exploratory courses each year, and the program regularly meets its objectives. Through this program, students learn about foreign language study skills and discover which foreign language and culture may interest them for future formal study. At the middle and high school level, students determine a single language to study, choosing Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Italian, Latin, or Russian. Swahili will be offered in the 1996-97 school year (P. Barr-Harrison, personal communication, June 1996).

The Lovett School (Atlanta, GA). This combination general language/potpourri FLEX program was established in Grade 6 to (1) introduce students to different languages and cultures; (2) offer students who had taken French in Grades K-5 an option to study other languages before committing to a two-year study of a foreign language (French, Latin, German, or Spanish) in Grade 7 and 8; (3) accommodate the large number of new students in Grade 6; and (4) provide a foreign language at all grade levels. The program aims to introduce the interrelatedness of languages, foster an appreciation of world cultures, teach a few expressions in other languages, and give an understanding of different forms of communication. A new language is introduced every week and a half. In addition to discussing hieroglyphics, Braille, and signed languages, teachers introduce Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, German, French, Spanish, Hindi, Swahili, and Arabic. Some of these may be omitted; others may be added, depending on student interest and resources. Teachers emphasize that all languages can be interesting and fun to learn. Most program materials were developed by program staff, to be used in conjunction with "Learning About Languages."

"Exploring Languages" is the main resource for teachers. Because the modules are short and flexible, interdisciplinary units can be created or coordinated with other curricula. The program has achieved its goals and is popular with students, teachers, and parents (C. Farmer, personal communication, April 1996).


The National FLES* Institute at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, Baltimore, MD 21228 (310-231-0824) is a good source of information on FLEX programs. For general information on early language programs, contact the National Network for Early Language Learning (NNELL) at the Center for Applied Linguistics, 1118 22nd Street NW, Washington, DC 20037 (202-429-9292).


Curtain, H., & Pesola, C.A. (1994). "Languages and children: Making the match" (2nd ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Kennedy, D.F., & De Lorenzo, W. (1985). "Complete guide to exploratory foreign language programs, including descriptions of successful programs." Chicago, IL: National Textbook.

Lipton, G. (1992). "Elementary foreign language programs. FLES*. An administrator's handbook. Chicago, IL: National Textbook.

Lipton, G. (1995). "Focus on FLES*. Planning and implementing FLES* programs (foreign language in elementary schools)". Baltimore, MD: National FLES* Institute.

Met, M., & Rhodes, N. (1990). Priority: Instruction. Elementary school foreign language instruction: Priorities for the 1990s. "Foreign Language Annals, 23," 433-443.

Rhodes, N., & Oxford, R. (1988). Foreign languages in elementary and secondary schools: Results of a national survey. "Foreign Language Annals, 21," 51-70.


Bender, L. (1988). "People and places: France." Columbus, OH: Silver Burdett.

Grittner, F.M. (Ed.). (1994). Special middle school edition. "Foreign Language Annals, 27," 1-120.

Kennedy, D.F., Barr-Harrison, P., & Wilmeth, M.G. (1994). "Exploring languages. A complete introduction for foreign language students." Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook.

Lipton, G. (1992). "Practical handbook to elementary foreign language programs, including FLES, FLEX, and immersion programs (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: National Textbook.

Lubiner, E.D. (1992). "Learning about languages (a comprehensive FLEX activity book). Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook.

Sheeran, J., & McCarthy, J.P. (1995). "Exploring French." St. Paul, MN: EMC. (German and Spanish versions also available.)

Tollhurst, M.B. (1989). "People and places: Spain." Columbus, OH: Silver Burdett.

Widdows, R. (1988). "People and places: Mexico." Columbus, OH: Silver Burdett.

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