Director's Corner: On Foreign Languages

At The Magnolia School, the curriculum includes Spanish lessons in the front room and the middle school, and French lessons in the back room. Why do we spend time teaching foreign languages when such time could be devoted to more important core topics such as English, math or science? What good is it if, by the time they graduate, our students still cannot really speak Spanish or French? Why don't we stick with Spanish throughout? What exactly are our goals? And what do our foreign language classes typically look like? Those are legitimate questions that we wish to address today. The literature on foreign language instruction keeps referring to the National Standards for foreign language education's 5 Cs: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons and Communities. These concern the ability of students to "communicate in languages other than English," "gain knowledge and understanding of other cultures," "connect with other disciplines," "develop insight into the nature of language," and ultimately "participate in multilingual communities at home & around the world." Despite a lot of research into the cognitive benefits of early foreign language instruction, foreign language classes in the U.S. are most commonly offered at the high school level, and although many colleges require foreign language for admission, not all states have high school foreign language graduation requirements. At the elementary and middle school, anything goes, from total Spanish immersion to half-time Japanese immersion to no foreign language exposure at all.

Our school lies in between, doing its best to address the 5 Cs. We do not have the goal of making our students fluent in any language by the time they graduate, as that would require total immersion (teaching all classes in Spanish or French, not something our PTO has ever lobbied for). What we do is expose our students to the sound and structure of different languages, the traditions of other cultures, the discomfort of not understanding everything that is being said, and the challenge of uttering foreign sounds. Through this process, our students train their auditory skills; get to better appreciate the power of nonverbal communication; understand better the structure of their own language (by comparing it to Spanish or French and exploring common roots, prefixes and suffixes); learn some geography, some history,  and some elements of foreign culture; develop resilience and flexibility as their anxiety is first triggered by the experience, then tempered by success; and learn not to be afraid of learning a new language.

Our rationale for introducing French in the back room was threefold: availability of a native French speaker, exposure to more than one foreign language, and the nature of French having more Anglo Saxon roots than a purer Romance language such as Spanish. In the front room, one 30-minute morning circle a week is devoted to Spanish. This simply consists of watching a series of videos in which friendly Spanish-speaking puppets have various adventures. For instance, a recent episode starred Little Red Riding Hood, her grandma, and the wolf for the purpose of introducing target words such as teeth (dientes) and ears (orejas). The job of the students is to listen attentively to the whole dialog, pick out the targeted words, and say them back.

In the back room and the middle school, the French and Spanish classes are more participatory and average 1 hour a week. Both use a mix of Total Physical Response (when students are engaged in physical movement following commands in the foreign language, thus learning by association as they did when acquiring their first language), introduction of vocabulary and foreign customs related to the current theme, and instruction in word structure, grammar and sentence construction. In our multigrade setting, students are encouraged but in no way forced to speak from day 1, allowing time for the incoming students to become comfortable while challenging their more advanced peers. We also learn a number of songs, a fun way to build vocabulary (and retain it years later).

By the end of each year, students in both classes have typically memorized a few useful conversational routines, and have lost their initial fears and inhibitions. Our teachers testify that the French and Spanish classes strengthen the word study and grammar skills of the back room and middle school students, and our alumni students report finding high school foreign language instruction easier than do their peers. These benefits and the ones listed above are in sync with reports in the academic literature linking early foreign language instruction with improvement in cognitive skills and academic performance, increased creativity and problem-solving skills, improvement in own language skills, confidence in language learning, and interest in languages and cultures.