ERIC Identifier: ED328083
Publication Date: 1990-12-00
Author: Curtain, Helena
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington
Foreign Language Learning: An Early Start. ERIC Digest.
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.
(For more information on elementary foreign language programs, see the
ERIC Digest, Elementary
School Foreign Language Programs, prepared by Jane Reeves, 1989.)
BASIC RATIONALE 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).
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
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,
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,
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). "Strength through wisdom: A critique of U.S. capability." Washington,
DC: United States Government Printing Office.
Simon, P. (1980). "The tongue-tied American. Confronting the foreign
language crisis." New York: Continuum Publishing Corporation.