Wide-ruled paper, composition books and colorful posters are common in an elementary school classroom — what isn’t so common is to see not only English words stenciled in, but French, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish as well.
This is becoming the norm in Utah elementary schools. In an increasingly globalized society, the world hungers for, and often requires, second language proficiency — but Utah educators increasingly believe the time to learn these languages is not in high school, it’s a decade earlier.
“Children are very adaptable,” said Eli Jones, a second-grade French teacher at Edgemont Elementary in Provo. “They are like little sponges; they soak everything up. When you’re younger, your brain is built differently, and [thus] you learn languages differently.”
It has long been thought people are most susceptible to picking up languages when they are children, and that is why Utah in the past few years has implemented dual-language immersion programs in elementary schools across the state. Language skills are valuable, and these programs have opened up opportunities for children to become fluent much faster.
“When it was offered to our school, we presented the idea to parents, whose response was overwhelmingly positive,” said Dennis Pratt, principal at Edgemont. “We’re now in our third year of the program, and have about 200 students involved in our French dual-immersion classes.”
In Provo alone, there are options for Mandarin Chinese, French and Spanish — all of which have instigated increased enrollment by students whose parents jump at the opportunity.
“We switched [our daughter] from a school in Orem over here because we knew how beneficial the language immersion program would be,” said Brandalee Streeter, parent of a third-grade student at Edgemont. “I learned Spanish and I used it every day when I worked. So I feel that it’s just going to make you that much more employable and give you that much more of an advantage.”
Younger children gain comprehension and speaking skills faster than older students, experts say.
“Substantial evidence suggests the existence of a critical learning period for first languages,” wrote science journalist Melissa Lee Phillips on the website Neuroscience for Kids, which is hosted by the University of Washington. “If a person is not exposed to a language during the critical period, he or she will never be able to speak the language as well as someone who learned language normally.”
The brain of a child is wired to learn languages, allowing him or her to use overlapping parts of the brain, such that it is substantially easier to absorb another language at the same time and connect the processes.
“The studies have shown that because they’re engaging more in their mind that they’re able and more capable to do more, and I have seen that with Emma (her daughter) every day,” Streeter said.
The success of the program can be seen simply in that as the children develop their minds with a second language, the critical thinking skills involved in the process are strengthened immensely.
“It’s amazing what the kids can do,” Jones said. “They don’t have perfect grammar like a high school student may have, but their conversation and their ability to communicate in the language is amazing. Their understanding of the language is fantastic as well.”
Starting in the first grade, children are taught half the day in English and half the day in the second language. Complete immersion is necessary if the child is to learn the language efficiently; therefore, teachers speak solely in the second language.
“That is the benefit — that they never speak in English to the kids,” Streeter said. “That was why the school said she’s going to come home frustrated and possibly in tears, because they don’t break for any reason. And I think that that’s to their benefit because they start going, ‘I have to speak French to this teacher or they’re not going to understand me.’ ”
Challenging though it may be, children pick up the intonations and structure of the language quickly, as they are forced to listen to and try to understand what the teacher is saying. Without this forced immersion, a second language is hard to learn.
“There’s a point where they have to struggle to understand,” Jones said. “But that’s where the growth comes from. As the student continues and perseveres and learns that they can do it, at that point they make a lot of progress. And the teacher’s task is to make sure the environment is such that the student almost has to learn.”
The environment of a second language classroom must contain ways for the children to connect the new ideas and words to familiar concepts, such as with pictures, diagrams and objects. Jones said the important part is to make the language accessible. It must be comprehensible input that allows the student to understand and then respond.
“If they look and listen, they will learn,” said Helene Villareale, a first-grade teacher at Edgemont, from France. “And they learn very quickly. Their brain is flexible and that allows them to learn quicker.”
A brain that has a greater capacity to pick up on languages is not all that is needed, however. Much depends on the teacher’s ability to relay every idea clearly to the students. Jones analogized this concept to playing charades. A great second language teacher is like a charade-master. They must be able to communicate to the student such that they know exactly what the teacher is talking about without even using one word.
“I believe the program is already showing many signs of success,” Pratt said. “It’s exciting to see how well the students already are conversant in French. The students are acquiring the second-language skills that they were expected to gain, all on top of the same wonderful and well-rounded education that all students receive here. They’ve not lost anything, but gained the facility with this second language, and I think that’s a great success.”