Schools Try Elementary Approach To Teaching Foreign Languages

Jonathan Ramos, left, and Steven Matute are among the kindergartners who have started learning Spanish at Graham Road Elementary School in Fairfax County.
Jonathan Ramos, left, and Steven Matute are among the kindergartners who have started learning Spanish at Graham Road Elementary School in Fairfax County. (By Mark Gong -- The Washington Post)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 8, 2006

School systems across the Washington area are adding foreign language classes in elementary grades in response to a call from government and business leaders who say the country needs more bilingual speakers to stay competitive and even to fight terrorism.

Educators say that the youngest brains have the greatest aptitude for absorbing language and that someone who is bilingual at a young age will have an easier time learning a third or fourth language later on. Compared with adults or even high school students, young children are better able to learn German with near-native pronunciation or mimic the subtle tones of Mandarin.

So last week, kindergartners at Fairfax County's Graham Road Elementary School, one of seven county elementary schools that reopen early in August, sang an alphabet song, learned how to stand in line -- and started Spanish lessons.

The 30-minute lesson, taught solely in Spanish, drew perplexed looks from 5-year-old Ngan Vo, who wasn't quite sure why classmates smiled and danced when they heard " bien " and pretended to cry when the teacher said " mal ." But teacher Yazmin Galloway says that by year's end, she expects Ngan and her classmates to have a foundation in Spanish.

"I'm pretty sure at the end of the year, I'll have speakers," Galloway said. "They will tell me how they're feeling that day. They will say, 'I can read this,' and tell me how to count."

Foreign language classes have long been a staple of high school, and several languages, such as Russian, Japanese and Arabic, have been added at that level. In addition, most Washington area school systems have offered a smattering of language programs at elementary schools for years.

But now, more and more immigrants from scores of countries are arriving in the region; in Montgomery County schools, more than 135 languages are spoken. So districts are making a concerted effort to offer instruction in more languages at more schools to even younger children.

Beginning this school year in the District, Shepherd Elementary School in Northwest Washington is planning to offer a pre-kindergarten French immersion program -- with some lessons in French and others in English -- and Thomson Elementary in Northeast is launching a Mandarin immersion class. Arlington County schools are adding a Spanish pilot program at two elementary schools.

And Fairfax is considering a long-term plan to expand foreign language instruction to each of its 137 elementary schools.

"The world is getting smaller and smaller, and I believe all students in Fairfax need to be able to speak a language other than English," said Fairfax County School Board Chairman Ilryong Moon (At Large). "As a person who came here as a teenager, I had a difficult time learning a new language. It's much better to start at an earlier age."

When Moon was growing up in South Korea, he started English classes in seventh grade. But nowadays, he said, children there learn English in elementary school. The U.S. Department of Education recently pointed out that more than 200 million children in China are studying English in primary school, but only 24,000 students in U.S. schools are learning Chinese.

Sam Hassett, 7, is part of an effort to change that equation.

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