Second Language Study in Elementary Schools

By Naserdeen, Da'ad | Multicultural Education, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Second Language Study in Elementary Schools


Naserdeen, Da'ad, Multicultural Education


Rola is excited, yet scared, as she begins her first year of college. After all, she is only 16 years old and knows no one on campus. She has been in the United States for two years and just graduated from high school. At age 14, Rola entered ninth grade in high school. She mastered the English language in six months, completed ninth grade and tested out of 10th, 11th and half of 12th grade. She attributes her academic achievement to her public school experience in the Middle Eastern country of Lebanon.

In Lebanon, teachers in public schools teach students two or three different languages, usually French and English. Since Rola already mastered English, it became easier for her to excel beyond her classmates. To shape our future, educators must recognize the potential a second language affords to students such as Rola. Research indicates that children who study a foreign language show increased cognitive ability and exceed normal classroom expectations. Why not teach a second language to elementary school youngsters? Teachers in many European and Asian countries do just that.

The majority of students born and raised in the United States lack formal education in another language. Sometimes, they are first introduced to a second language in high school when it is often difficult for them to master a second language. Newsweek supports this claim when it notes that "A child taught a second language after age ten is unlikely ever to speak it like a native." Research supports this notion. Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans show that by age four children's brains are twice as active as adult brains (Mills, 1998). This high level of activity promotes trillions of connections between neurons in the brain. Michael Phelps, a biophysicist and co-inventor of the PET scan, adds "If we teach our children early enough, it will affect the organization, or `wiring' of their brains" (Foreign Language and Youth, 1996).

In order to help students compete in a global economy, teachers in the United States must begin to teach children a second language at an early age. Aside from global competition, research also indicates that students who are proficient in a second language score higher on standardized tests conducted in English. This provides them with a competitive advantage in the work force.

Thus, the purpose of this article is to describe the advantages of a second language being taught to students at the elementary school level. Three currently-used language programs (Immersion, FLES, and FLEX) that facilitate the learning of a second language are also described.

Advantages of a Second Language

In 1992, the College Entrance Examination Board reported that students who averaged four or more years of a foreign language scored higher on the verbal section of the SAT than those who studied four or more years in any other subject matter area. Students with four years of a foreign language also scored higher on the math section of the test (Marcos, 1998).

In addition to higher test scores, there are other benefits in being proficient in a second language. Overall, society benefits. Americans fluent in other languages enhance the economy, strengthen their competitiveness abroad, improve global communication, and maintain political and security interests. In 1998, American companies lost 40 percent of sales in the international market because they had few employees who could relate to the foreign country (Llorente, 1992).

In 1956, Russia sent Sputnik into space. To compete in a world economy, the United States poured a vast amount of money into mathematics and science programs for students. Americans learned quickly that teachers in foreign countries teach youngsters a foreignlanguage so that they, the students, are prepared to be competitive in a global economy.

Knowledgeable students contribute to a robust economy which in turn benefits people of all ages from all walks of life. …

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