A Cure for Monolingualism: Elementary-Level Foreign Language Instruction Helps to Create Global Citizens

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GLOBALIZATION HAS LED TO UNPRECEDENTED interest in expanding foreign language instruction in U.S. schools, particularly at grade levels where traditionally it has not been an option. Languages that previously have been rarely taught, such as Chinese, are frequently the choice of new programs at every level in the K12 range. As No Child Left Behind has become a familiar refrain in our schools, few have noticed that the United States is already far behind the rest of the world in preparing our students for their responsibilities as global citizens. In fact, bilingualism and multilingualism are more the norm than the exception throughout the rest of the world. Policies in the European Union promote plurilingualism--high levels of proficiency in at least two languages and skills "as needed" in additional languages. Most importantly, plurilingualism embeds intercultural competencies as well as an awareness of the role of language in society. Although globalization may be evolving as a major impetus in the United States at the moment, there are compelling reasons for foreign language study beyond the world marketplace and political arena. An increasingly diverse society within the United States requires all students to know how to communicate across the permeable linguistic and cultural borders of our communities. More than ever, areas that have previously not felt the impact of a growing population of recent and not-so-recent immigrants are learning the importance of a harmonious and civil society based on mutual understanding.

But even if students never have a cross-linguistic, cross-cultural encounter, there are cognitive and academic benefits to language study. Research studies have noted the cognitive correlations of early bilingualism; studies of early foreign language learning have shown that students may outperform comparison groups on measures of reading and math.

As schools consider expanding their language offerings, a common core of questions frequently arises about introducing foreign languages, especially at the elementary level.

How do we get started?

Administrators need to start with the end in mind. The first steps require clarity about who wants foreign languages in the early grades, and for what reasons. Some parents, for example, want their children to leave the elementary grades fluent in another language, while others simply hope for a high quality experience that exposes children to other languages and cultures. District administrators and staff need to determine not only the purpose of the program, but also need to gauge the level of commitment in their district to adequately supporting the program in both the short and long term. Most importantly, administrators will need to decide the amount of funding that will be made available.

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What program models could be considered in elementary schools?

What level of language proficiency do you expect students to achieve? And, what resources, both financial and human, are available to commit to the program? The major differences among program models relate to student outcomes, which directly correlate with the amount of time the students spent in language learning, and the cost to the district.

The least expensive model, which ironically results in the highest level of language proficiency, is an immersion program, where students spend at least one-half of the school day learning the school curriculum through the target language. Immersion students, particularly those who spend more than 50 percent of the school day in the target language, have native-like comprehension skills and are quite fluent by the end of the elementary grades.

A popular immersion approach is dual language immersion, in which half the class is learning a foreign language while the other half is learning English. For students who already speak English, no program of foreign language instruction in a school setting surpasses immersion for the level of language proficiency attained. …