When twins Ryan and Michael D’Introno entered kindergarten two years ago, they often came home from school singing songs in Spanish, part of a language immersion program their school in Bedford Hills, N.Y., decided to try. All students, many of whom were native Spanish speakers, received instruction in both English and Spanish a few days a week.
The boys’ mother, Gina D’Introno, says her sons “were excited to learn Spanish.”
D’Introno also believes the Spanish-speaking students were pleased to see their classmates learning their language.
Similar immersion programs focusing on Spanish and other languages such as French, German and Chinese are increasing in the United States, as are more traditional programs in second-language learning in elementary schools. In fact, 25 percent of all U.S. public and private elementary schools offered foreign language instruction in 2010, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics. The Washington, D.C.-based organization tracks language study in the U.S. Many of the programs are immersion programs where children are taught in English for part of the day, and in another language at other times. French immersion programs have been popular in Canadian schools for many years, and in the U.S., many school districts offer them to encourage language learning.
But as much as educators and many parents applaud a strong approach and increasing interest in foreign-language learning, it is not available in every school district. And the U.S. is still far behind many European countries, where young children are required to begin learning a foreign language before the age of 9. In several countries, students are required to learn a second foreign language soon after that, says Nancy Rhodes, senior foreign language education consultant for the Center for Applied Linguistics.
According to the most current U.S. Department of Education statistics regarding second-language learning, Spanish overall was the most in-demand language in 2009, with French coming in second, Rhodes says. “There also continues to be interest in learning Chinese and Arabic,” she adds.
Why we need other languages
Theresa Bruns, director of professional development at Middlebury Interactive Languages in Middlebury, Vt., says children have an advantage when learning a second language because their brains are still developing, which gives them the capacity to more easily acquire the language.
Another possible advantage of having more than one language under one’s belt: A study published in 2014 in the Annals of Neurology by researchers at the University of Edinburgh indicates that knowing another language might slow the onset of dementia later in life.
In addition to the intellectual and potential health benefits that learning a second language might offer, globalization provides another motive to speak another language as more Americans decide to travel, study or work overseas.
“There are now definitely more jobs globally that require language and cross-cultural skills,” says Rhodes. “U.S. universities are realizing that they need to prepare globally competent graduates and are starting to offer more tailored language classes in preparation for needs in the workforce. They are also internationalizing their curricula to help their graduates adapt to the global marketplace.”
In recent years, Bruns says, “We have seen growth in (the number of) school districts where administrators, teachers and parents recognize the long-term benefits of second-language acquisition and employ creative strategies to provide students with high-quality world language instruction.”
Such strategies can include integrating digital tools — including games, videos and animation — into classroom lessons. It’s not easy, Bruns says: “Reality tells us that with increased standardized testing and time being spent in the classroom focusing on test preparation, there is not time to add in one more subject to the day.”
Other major roadblocks are funding programs and finding faculty that can teach more complex foreign languages to younger children.
“Shrinking budgets often means that schools just don’t have the funds to hire language teachers,” Bruns notes. But some elementary schools are turning to digital courses that can provide flexibility with how and when the instruction will occur during the school day. “Digital learning is driving this growth because it can provide access to qualified online Chinese teachers, which can be very difficult for many districts to find,” Bruns says.
Parents and community matter
It can be difficult to advocate for language learning in lower grades because a second language is not required by schools in most states. But experts say it is important for parents to urge school boards, administrators and even local politicians to include language learning in their children’s schools for reasons that range from preserving native languages to serving a specific community. In New York City, for example, the first bilingual program in Urdu will begin this fall in Brooklyn, in part to address the needs and interests of local speakers of Urdu, which is the official language of Pakistan and is also spoken in many parts of India.
There are some parents who want their children to learn another language even earlier than in elementary school.
Emily Abdallah, a middle school teacher at an independent school in New York City, decided that her 3-year-old daughter, Aria, would benefit by attending the Maryel International School, a private school also in New York City, where Spanish is spoken almost exclusively. Abdallah plans to enroll her younger daughter, now 2, at Maryel next year
“I want my children to be able to access their culture — to truly do so they need to speak the language,” she says. “Although my parents are both Spanish speakers, they taught us English and didn’t speak Spanish. At the time, the goal was assimilation and the avoidance of having an accent. Now that I know that notion was incorrect, I want to do everything I can to have my kids have the chance to experience being bilingual.”