Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Middle School Foreign Language Instruction: A Missed Opportunity?

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Middle School Foreign Language Instruction: A Missed Opportunity?

Article excerpt

Students in American public schools often have the option to begin foreign language instruction in middle school. Of the estimated 14.7 million students enrolled in a K-12 foreign language class in 2008 in the United States, about 2.3 million attended a middle school (Pufahl & Rhodes, 2011, p. 263). After being initially exposed to foreign language instruction in an exploratory program1 in sixth grade, many of these middle school students choose to pursue language studies for high school Level I credit in seventh and/or eighth grade: In some programs, students can, for example, choose to complete the first half of Level I Spanish in seventh grade and the second half in eighth grade, while in other programs learners can continue their language explorations in seventh grade, then complete the equivalent of a high school Level I course in a language of their choice in eighth grade. Upon successful completion of their middle school studies, these students can then continue with more advanced foreign language instruction at the high school level.

Unfortunately, the results of a national survey conducted by Pufahl and Rhodes (2011) revealed that fewer middle schools are offering foreign language instruction. While 75% of middle schools offered foreign language instruction in 1997, only 58% did so in 2008. In addition, due to the elective nature of foreign language studies in many middle schools, seventh and eighth graders often choose to postpone language learning until secondary school: Data showed that at public middle schools in which foreign language instruction was offered, only 36% of students took advantage of this language learning opportunity in 2008 (Pufahl & Rhodes, 2011, p. 263).

Students' decisions to delay the onset of foreign language instruction until high school raise a number of interesting questions, particularly since multiple studies over the past decade have touted the fits of language learning at an early age. For example, questions may be posed about the comparability of the American educational system to that of other countries. Highlighting that only 9% of American adults can speak more than one language fluently, compared to more than half of their European counterparts, tian, and Rhodes (2005, p. 226) investigated the policies and practices of language programs in 19 different countries. The results suggested that successful language programs in other countries consistently start before high school. In Thailand, for example, students begin studying English in first grade, and in Luxembourg, German is a mandatory subject in first grade. In contrast, most American students do not begin studying a foreign language until high school (Christian et al., 2005). In addition, questions concerning motivation to begin and sustain language study can also be considered. For example, researchers have shown that adolescent students in high school settings tend to develop more negative attitudes toward foreign language learning than their younger peers (Netten, Riggs, & Hewlett, 1999; Whitehead, 1996).

In light of these findings, it could be argued that American students who begin formal language instruction in middle school may both reach higher levels of proficiency and be more motivated than their peers who begin language study in high school by the time both groups complete the two years of study in the same foreign language that is required for admission to many American universities. To better understand the implications of beginning foreign language instruction at an earlier age, this study compared the oral proficiency and motivation of students who began formal language instruction in middle school with those of their counterparts who delayed language learning until high school.

Review of Related Literature

An overview of research conducted over the past 40 years related to age and language learning revealed common themes. Studies have, for example, focused on age-related factors that can influence second language acquisition, the benefits of early-start language instruction among immigrant children and students in immersion settings, and the advantages of early-start foreign language programs. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.