My kids were giggling at the Peter Pan haircut in my second grade picture that my mom recently discovered. Seeing myself in a parochial school uniform with a gap toothed smile, I couldn’t help but smile thinking about that second grade year when I was chosen to be part of a pilot French program at my school.
Lined up in the hallway with a handful of other curious and clueless kids, I remember following the soft spoken Sr. Elizabeth as we walked into a spare room that seemed to be a thrown together space for our little gathering of “rookie” foreign language students.
Even though my memory doesn’t hold many specifics about those hours of instruction, I always feel a sense of gratitude and pride when I think of that early introduction to the study of language. Something must have sparked in me during those half hours of alphabet, number, and basic vocabulary drills because I loved every moment of each French class that I took throughout all my school years, including high school and college. I’ll even open up a French idiom book at home once in a while now to quiz myself to see if my French skills are not too rusty.
My kids probably think it’s odd to see mom as a perpetual French student. They wonder about how mom can get any enjoyment out of studying her old French textbook. From those early days of French conjugation in second grade, I quickly discovered that I felt at home as a French student. Studying a foreign language turned out to be another solid stone in the foundation of my education and life experience.
In many school districts, children begin taking a foreign language in the 7th grade. Considering their already full school schedule, kids may have mixed feelings about taking on the challenge of learning a new language. Hopefully, many of them are somewhat excited about this opportunity to decipher and communicate in another language.
Others may feel overwhelmed with the thought of all the memorization and new grammar rules that come with studying a language for the first time. Foreign language teachers need and require attentiveness and dedication from their students in order to gain some kind of fluency in the language. Middle school age can be a busy, stressful time for kids as they juggle academic demands, activity schedules, and social networking.
Instead of starting from scratch with a new language at 12 or 13, wouldn’t it be possibly more beneficial for kids to have some foreign language instruction in the elementary school years?
With foreign language instruction beginning at a younger age, those same middle school kids will most likely have not only a higher proficiency in the language, but also a greater appreciation for more advanced study.
My success as a foreign language student began when I was given the chance as a second grader to impress Sr. Elizabeth with that first lesson about how to greet your teacher in French. We all sat a little taller when Sr. Elizabeth would applaud each of our efforts to communicate in this new way.
Compared to a middle school student, we as second graders didn’t have the stress and demands that could take away our focus during the 30 minutes of dedicated French instruction. Our young minds were ripe and ready for each new challenge that Sr. Elizabeth threw our way. I truly believe that we were given a wonderful gift when we could go into that little room and proudly begin each day with a lively “Bonjour!”
I wonder if a 5 to 10-minute dose of foreign language instruction each day would prove to be a great way to develop foreign language fluency in elementary age students. Look at how the little bit of Spanish shared by those cartoon preschool favorites, Dora and Diego, have quickly become part of preschoolers’ vocabulary.
Compared to my 7-year-old world of 1975, today’s world is a global neighborhood where networking and communication weave through every aspect of life. Maybe it’s time for many American school districts to consider adding foreign language instruction in the elementary school curriculum.
Introducing a foreign language to younger students could ignite a lifelong passion for learning that no parent or teacher would regret.
Please feel free to share your views in the comments. Au revoir! Merci!