Learning to Speak in Tongues of the World Language Acquisition Starts Early at Summit

Article excerpt

Byline: Elizabeth Harmon Daily Herald Correspondent

"Bonjour, class!"

The lesson begins at Summit School in Elgin, as 3-year-olds learn colors and parts of the body in French, with a little help from Austin, a sock puppet French poodle and his English-speaking helper, teacher Lori Haney.

Today, Austin is hungry, and each child has a different-colored paper bone to feed him. But before Austin will take the bone, the child must correctly name the color.

"Purple?" offers one little boy, holding out a bone.

"En Francais!" Haney says, reminding him that Austin only understands French.

"Violet!" comes the response.

"Tres bien," compliments Haney, as Austin grabs the bone and rewards the boy with a sock puppet kiss.

Traditionally a part of a middle-school or high-school curriculum, foreign language instruction is finding its way into area elementary schools, and in some cases, even preschools.

Kids as young as age 3 are learning the vocabulary and sounds of French, Spanish and Japanese as they're learning to speak their own languages.

"The development of a complex oral language system between the ages of 2 and 5 is universal, and acquisition of a second language uses some of the same innate processes used to acquire a first language," writes language researcher Virginia Collier of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

In a 1995 article published in the Journal of Education Issues of Language Minority Students, Lee Pham, a linguistics researcher and a Houston, Texas, school principal, states that by age 6, children can use and comprehend about 14,000 words, averaging about nine new words per day.

"Research tells us that after age 11 or 12, the brain loses the innate capacity to pick it up automatically, and learning a new language becomes work," said Don Kersemier, director of teacher education at Judson College and a former high school and college Spanish teacher.

"Also, as people get older, they lose the ability to reproduce certain sounds, so they'll always speak the new language with an accent. Children don't have that problem."

"First through fifth grade is an optimum time to begin," agrees Ray Tourville, chairman of foreign languages at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. "They think it's fun, and they're willing to do some of the active things that might seem silly but are good tools for learning another language."

"You won't get teenagers to sing the alphabet, but little kids love it," said Kersemier.

Games and songs are an integral part of Summit School's French and Japanese instruction, which is given to all primary and middle school students and to 3- and 4-year-olds in the five-day preschool. Summit is a private school with campuses in East Dundee and Elgin.

Haney teaches her young students to count to 10 in French by cueing them into the sounds of the words, rather than focusing on the numbers themselves.

She also has created corresponding hand signals. For "sept," the French word for seven, Haney pantomimes using a roller to set her hair. …