Speak Easy

Learning a foreign language is much simpler when kids get an early start, educators say
Illustration by Marco Marella

The days when an American traveler could stride the globe speaking nothing but English have been over for some time, and an even more different era is dawning for younger Americans — when they may need a second language to fully live life in their own country. While English remains the world’s dominant language, no one expects a 21st-century businessperson to compete in a global marketplace without a second language at his or her disposal — whether it be Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Hindi or another spoken in the world’s emerging powers.

The good news is, research into brain development long ago established that learning a second language isn’t difficult at all — if it starts early. Children brought up in bilingual homes learn both effortlessly. So-called immersion programs can have grade-schoolers fluent in months.

The bad news is, it’s still hard to find elementary-level foreign-language programs in Michigan. They’re out there, but hit-or-miss, with some districts offering long-standing programs and others none at all. The state’s Department of Education doesn’t even track which schools do so, spokeswoman Jan Ellis says.

The better news is, with new graduation requirements going into effect for the class of 2016, things are improving. Students will be required to have two years of foreign language (or “world language,” as it’s known by today’s educators) to graduate, but those credits can be gathered in elementary or middle school. The measure encourages districts to institute language study earlier, when it’s more likely to take root.

“The goal is to get them proficient or at least knowledgeable,” Ellis says.

“The greatest opportunities in the workplace will go to [multilingual workers]. And it’s only going to become more important.”

Parents in Bloomfield Hills have known this for some time, and Spanish instruction has been part of the grade-school curriculum for 20 years, says Laurie McCarty, assistant superintendent of instruction for the district. It starts formally in first grade and informally in kindergarten, and every child gets a minimum of 60 minutes of instruction a week.

The early start has the benefit of “helping children learn a second language early on,” McCarty says. “There’s a benefit to brain development. Children really absorb and learn quickly if they’re started early.” Still, an hour a week isn’t very much, and McCarty explains that parents shouldn’t expect fluency from such limited exposure.

“It’s to develop the ear, an appreciation of the language and cultures,” she says. At the end of fifth grade, students are assessed on reading, writing, speaking, and listening. They should be able to carry on simple conversations, read short passages, and ask simple questions. The elementary curriculum builds a foundation, so that when the more intense study begins, in middle school, students learn far more quickly. Fluent or not, she says, it’s a draw for the Bloomfield district, highly popular with parents.

For more intense instruction, parents who want a fluent bilingual child might want to consider a private school. At the International School in Farmington Hills, non-native language instruction has been part of the curriculum since its inception in 1968. It was a necessity for a school that was founded to serve European children temporarily relocated to Detroit by parents working long-term contracts in the auto industry. Originally focused on French, today the student body is primarily German, and the student body has a variety of languages to choose from, says Gudron Mueller, assistant headmaster.

The school has fewer than 100 students, and it benefits from very small class sizes and a motivated student body. The aim is to produce a “global-minded” student body, and considering that most are already from bilingual households, the ground is already fertile, Mueller says. The German students improve their English and may add a third language, while American students are more likely to choose Spanish. But the school is always looking to expand its offerings, and recently added a Mandarin Chinese program for kindergarteners and preschoolers.
Mueller says instruction isn’t a grind, however. “[Our parents] are looking for an open-minded, truly global viewpoint, and want their children to acquire a foreign language in the most uncomplicated way possible,” she says. “We prefer they come to us still in kindergarten, where they learn from native speakers in a very play-like way, and in a setting that’s geared toward social interaction. Classes are very playful, very non-threatening, very joyous.”

Most language teachers who work with younger children report similar teaching activities, and point out that the very malleability of children’s brains is what makes language learning so much easier in early grades. That’s not to say a few choruses of “Frère Jacques” is all it takes, but it’s not the pain experienced by high-school juniors trying to conjugate French verbs, either.

“The earlier you offer, the better,” says the Department of Education’s Ellis. “Unfortunately, we’re hearing that elementary and middle schools still have a long way to go.”

Derringer is a Grosse Pointe Woods-based freelancer. E-mail: editorial@hourdetroit.com.

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