Early Launch for Language

Young Children Have Advantage, but Linguists Say Lessons Benefit All

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 16, 2009; Page B02

One in an occasional series comparing two takes on teaching popular subjects.

Can kids learn anything if they are exposed to a subject for only half an hour a week, with no homework?

When it comes to learning another language, educators say yes.

"The kids getting it for 30 minutes won't become fluent, but that's not the point of those programs," said Julie Sugarman, research associate at the nonprofit Center for Applied Linguistics in the District. "It's to give them exposure to the language. Just because kids aren't able to do calculus in sixth grade doesn't mean we shouldn't teach math in elementary school."

Foreign language instruction is considered more important than ever as the nation's demographics and national security issues change and the world's economies become intertwined.

Although new brain research is revealing secrets about how people acquire language, complex questions remain about what constitutes effective teaching. In the No Child Left Behind era, which has focused on basic reading and math skills, some educators say time for teaching foreign languages is scarce. That means aiming for a goal short of fluency.

Spanish teacher Lisa Vierya emphasizes basic conversational skills in the half-hour a week she has with a second-grade class at Evergreen Mill Elementary School in Loudoun County.

Vierya wheels in a big cart packed with books, word cards and other materials. From start to finish, she speaks Spanish, even when the students don't understand her.

"¿Cuál animal es?" ("What animal is this?"), she asked her students after teaching them how to say "horse," "pig" and other farm animals. The students answered correctly until one confused a horse ("caballo") with the color gray, answering "gris."

"They eventually pick it up," she said later. No homework is required, but students are encouraged to practice. First- and second-graders receive 30 minutes of instruction a week; children in grades 3 through 5 have two 30-minute classes weekly.

Assessments in fifth grade, she said, show that the program gives students a grounding in the language that allows them to converse.

"Yes, I'd like more time. But there is value in this," she said.

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