To whom it may concern (specifically, those involved in language pedagogy) :
Over the past decade, many public schools have stopped teaching a foreign language. Perhaps because they view it as unimportant or even disadvantageous to the educational development of children. But of course, the schools that do teach foreign language, often do so in a manner that may not be the most advantageous for students. It is important to take into consideration the cognitive abilities of each student. For example, teaching a pre-schooler a new language may be easier than teaching a 20 year old, as the child’s mind is more malleable and can activate new neurons that may have already been “shrunken” in the adult’s already developed mind. In addition, each instructor of a foreign language seems to have a different method of teaching: some rely on on textbooks while others utilize videos, and other forms of media. So with all these different factors in teaching style and cognitive levels, what is the best method for helping students learn a new language? When is the best time to expose a student to a new language? Should they be kept as part of a regular school curriculum? Is it really important?
Teaching a foreign language can do nothing but increase brain activity in a child, so why cut it?
According to Noam Chomsky, a celebrated American linguist, we are born with a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) which enables us, as infants, to easily learn and produce language. This theory of language acquisition explains how babies easily learn thousands of words and rules of grammar in a matter of years. Babies are also said to have prelinguistic stages, which takes place before the they say their first meaningful word. During these stages, and perhaps because of Chomsky’s LAD, babies can pick up the subtle differences in languages (ie. vowel sounds, accent, and intonation). In fact, the babbling done by babies during the first six month contains about 70 sounds from languages around the world (Kutolak, 1996). After being exposed to a certain language over a period of time, the baby will lose phonological sounds not needed in their first language. Learning a second language early is almost as easy as learning the first, which is why pre-school and elementary foreign language programs should be kept or even added on!
“The learning experiences of a child determine which [neural] connections are developed and which no longer function. That means what is easy and natural for a child – learning a language – can become hard work for an older learner.” (Curtain & Dahlberg 2004)
A study by Miheal Bruman (2011) investigated how children ages 4-6 were perceived and motivated by learning a second language in kindergarten. A random sample of Slovenian children who were learning English and German were observed to be highly motivated to learn the other languages and expressed a need for actively involved learning (ie. singing, talking, playing). They also felt a sense of accomplishment after completing a task and constantly expressed their new knowledge of the foreign language. Of course there were some children who didn’t enjoy learning the foreign language who didn’t feel as supported, which leads to the conclusion that foreign language teaching in children must offer a climate that is safe, enjoyable, and highly supportive. In my opinion, these factors are extremely important when teaching a child a foreign language. My personal Spanish education, which lasted from kindergarten to eighth grade, did provide me with a fun and supportive environment–but only in Kindergarten. Once I got into grade school, the teaching method changed, we used a textbook and practiced conjugations on worksheets. Granted, I still learned however, but not in the most advantageous manner. Which brings up the point that language teaching must be taught in a way that fits the cognitive ability of the students. Remembering this would bring the sense of achievement mentioned in the study above which could then act as a catalyst of the child having a more positive-self image and a more positive school experience. Early language exposure will also lead to greater cognitive flexibility, listening skills and memory–if taught the right way.
Another issue is the fact that second language education usually doesn’t start until jr. high and high school– a time where language acquisition is definitely more difficult. By this time, children have been cut off from the unique phonological sounds of other language and have been speaking and writing in only their native tongue. An interesting study by Hayes-Harb, who at the time was an undergraduate studying to become an English as a second language teacher, tested to see whether people could pick up the subtle distinctions between similar sounding vowels (ie. In English pat and bat almost sound the same to a non-english speaker). Since, the brain’s ability to learn a language has changed significantly in this period, the manner in which the language is taught would have to slightly differ from the way we are taught as children. Since it is a “less natural” process, the way we learn a language when we’re older involves two types of memory. When we are learning our first language and exposed to a second when we are younger, we rely on what is called procedural (implicit) memory, which is often used for automatic processes. When learning a new language later on in life, however, we rely on declarative (explicit) memory. We must make conscious effort to remember the grammar rules and vocabulary. It is for this reason that the style in which language is taught in jr. high high school, and beyond should involve communication. In fact, students who have been taught in an environment involving verbal communication exercises and other practice activities have been shown to actually utilize procedural memory, while those who learn in a more formal manner, through textbooks and worksheets, rely on a more declarative memory.
In my foreign language experience, I’ve gone through both a formal and more immersive approach to learning. Back in high school, my teacher required us to learn by practicing conjugations in a workbook, and read the rules of grammar. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, it just didn’t require too much cognitive effort. I struggled back then with the language, and it actually wasn’t until she added a daily exercise called “the petit conversation” where we talked about our day and how we were feeling in French, that I started to grasp the structure of the language. Even now, in college, my professors require us to think abstractly and talk only in French. Many of the courses are based around French culture, which makes learning more fun and allows students to surround themselves with cultural media (ie. videos, movies, music, plays, etc.). Opportunities to study abroad also make the transition to foreign language fluency a lot easier. The daily exposure to another culture and the language creates a better environment for the student. In a 2011 empirical study by Jennifer Brown, students who learned a foreign language through textbooks were compared to students who went through foreign language housing. The results showed that the students placed in foreign language had a great cognitive gain and were able to become improve their oral proficiency. This public school in Organ utilizes this immersion technique right in their own school and the benefits the students achieve are numerous:
Imagine, what it would be like if every school was taught in that manner and included a rigorous foreign language program:
- Children would be able to think more abstractly and creatively, allowing them to solve more complex problems(Bamford & Mizokawa, 1991).
- There would be more academic achievement in other subjects. Evidence shows that time spent on foreign language study greatly reinforces the core subject areas of reading, English language literacy, social studies and math. (Armstrong & Rogers 1997; Saunders 1998; Masciantonio 1977; Rafferty 1986; Andrade 1989; Kretschmer & Kretschmer 1989)
- Standardized test scores would be higher. Students of foreign languages tend to score higher on standardized tests. Results from the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) show that students who had studied a foreign language for 4 or more years got higher scores compared to other students on the verbal and math portions of the test. (College Board 2003).
- There would be an increase in the number of college bound students as those who study a foreign language for at least three years in high school, usually earned higher grades and are least likely to drop out. (Horn & Kojaku 2001)
This is evidence enough that language programs are not pointless and should not be cut. If anything, more language programs should be created to foster the intellectual potential of children. Teachers should also keep in mind the different cognitive abilities of their students. So, to all those who teach foreign language, don’t rely on textbook materials and mundane power points, immerse your students in the culture and get them involved.