Children Say 'Oui' to Foreign Languages

French, Spanish, Japanese are echoing in the halls - of primary schools

Jennifer Benoit's students are fully engaged in the study of all things franais. They identify pictures of baguettes, fromage, and the Arc d'Triomphe. They count from un to dix. They sing "Alouette" and play games in French. They even practice French on their parents, saying bonjour when a mere hello would do.

If this sounds like a typical language class, consider this: Of Ms. Benoit's dozen students, the oldest is 9; the youngest is in kindergarten.

"It's great," says Benoit, a volunteer teacher from nearby Bennington College, after a recent energetic session at Shaftsbury Elementary School in rural Vermont. "Their brains are like sponges. They remember everything."

Foreign-language classes have typically been relegated to the high school years. But in primary schools across the country, such study is clearly experiencing a boom. Nearly a third of the nation's public and private elementary schools offer foreign-language classes, up 10 percent since 1987. Reasons for the increase range from children's natural language abilities to cultural awareness to parental concerns that their children have good job prospects in the era of global trade.

Elementary programs run the gamut in terms of rigor. Most schools are content to ease into French, Spanish, or Japanese, focusing on basic spoken skills. Others aim at nothing less than fluency, teaching all subjects in total immersion programs. But the impetus for early language study is coming from one highly motivated source: parents.

"It's a true grass-roots movement, and it's the parents who are driving this," says Nancy Rhodes, director of the Center for Applied Linguistics, a research group in Washington. "They know that if children start early, they can develop the language skills of a native speaker. It gets more difficult as you grow older."

But while educators have long known that children absorb languages better in their grammar school years, it is only recently that schools have begun to offer classes. In fact, the average American student starts learning a foreign language at age 14, six years after the average student in Austria, France, or Russia. This puts Americans at a disadvantage, linguists say, when they go overseas to negotiate as well as sell all those American goods and services in the global marketplace.

"A lot of the time, Americans who travel stay in places that cater to American needs, so they live under the mistaken impression that the rest of the world speaks English," says Catherine Ingold, deputy director of the National Foreign Language Center at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. "But in fact, only 12 percent of the world does."

Dramatic shifts in taste

America's language priorities have shifted dramatically since the turn of the century, when educators first started keeping track of foreign language trends in public schools. In 1910, some 50 percent of all high-schoolers took Latin. German was the next favorite with 23 percent, followed by French with 10 percent.

Today, American tastes have changed. Nearly 27 percent of all high schoolers study Spanish, 9.3 percent study French, and Latin barely makes the list, with 1.6 percent.

Ironically, America's interest in foreign languages is growing at a time when much of the world is moving toward adopting English at least as the language of global trade. Even so, the gap between America and its competitors in the industrialized world continues to grow. European high-schoolers often study two to four foreign languages; Americans tend to study one.

Educators note that America's lack of interest in foreign cultures is as old as the melting pot. While Europeans must learn several languages to travel and trade on the continent, Americans can travel most of their continent without switching from English.

But while business groups and educators have long urged schools to improve US language education, the problem has resisted national solutions. For one thing, most school-related decisions are made city by city and state by state. The US Department of Education plays only an advisory role, offering guidelines and funding to promote certain national initiatives.

"The Europeans think we're crazy," Ingold says. "They ask me, 'What's your ministry of education doing about this?' and I say, 'We don't have one.' "

Deciding which type of language program to use often hinges on cost, but educators say full-immersion programs offer students the best chance to achieve fluency. Yet European and Asian students achieve remarkable levels of proficiency in regular classes, although they study longer. French children, for example, study English for nine years on average, starting at age 10. Italian students study English for 11 years and start at age 8.

A popular class

In Shaftsbury, parents were just starting to talk about the need for foreign-language programs when a call came from the nearby leafy campus of Bennington College. In 1995, the college's foreign-language department, faced with shrinking enrollments, offered its services for a small fee to local public and private schools. At a Parent-Teacher Association meeting, the people of Shaftsbury gratefully accepted.

Now in its second year, the Shaftsbury language program has nearly 80 students. Bennington also offers after-school classes in elementary schools in nearby Manchester and the local private Molly Stark School. Next year, Manchester is expected to introduce Bennington's French and Chinese classes into the regular school day.

"Now we are overwhelmed by the response," says Isabelle Kaplan, director of Bennington's Regional Center for Foreign Languages and Cultures. "The first year we had 85 students. We have 245 students this year, and probably we'll have 400 next year."

A visit to Shaftsbury's after-school language classes shows that the youngsters take their wordplay quite seriously. Classes toss out rote memorization in favor of "kid stuff" - songs, games, and practical situations - so students are enthusiastic and quick to absorb new words.

In Yoshiko Shioya's class, students learn to identify words on Japanese videos, to speak key phrases of greeting, and to sing songs about chopsticks. (After hearing a tape-recording of the class's singing, one boy says, "Hey, it sounds like we knew it.")

In Adnan Ifthekhar's class, one girl calls out colors in French ("rouge," "blanc," "bleu") while her classmates dash around the room to touch something red, white, or blue.

"Trs bien," says Mr. Ifthekhar, congratulating them. He then switches the game from colors to parts of the body. "Touchez le pied." ("Le foot," one girl whispers in a helpful translation to a struggling classmate.)

Out on the playground, Benoit's students sit in a circle while their teacher taps their heads in a French version of "Duck, Duck, Goose."

On the sidelines, parents talk about their hopes of making Bennington's after-school program a regular fixture at Shaftsbury schools.

"The overall goal is to include this as part of the curriculum," says Susan Hitchcock-Picton, who says her daughter Erin's chief motive in taking French was mischief: She wanted to talk about her Dad without him understanding. "By the time these kids get to the sixth grade, I can't imagine how much further along they'll be."

"The middle school is going to need to restructure," adds Anne Mela, who has two daughters, one taking Japanese, the other taking French. "Otherwise, the kids will be going over the same material and they'll get bored."

Several parents say the cultural benefits of studying another language will help their children in the future, even if they can't remember much.

"Someday, we'd like to visit other countries, and it's nice to have the background in another language," says Cindy Waters, who has two children in the Shaftsbury language program. "With the world becoming a global society, it's important for kids to understand that the world is not just where you happen to live."

* Previous articles in this series ran Aug. 27, Sept. 23, Oct. 18, Nov. 18, 1996; Jan. 7, Jan. 14, Feb. 19, March 13, March 17, and May 8, 1997.

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