Sandra Rosado is big on class participation. So when her fourth-graders had a hard time keeping quiet until it was their turn to answer, she didn't mind.
Until a few of them spoke in English.
"No Ingles!" Rosado reminded her Spanish class at Perkins Elementary School.
No problem. At ages 9 and 10, the children spoke Spanish for the rest of the class, eagerly naming Central American capitals and using words from potatoes to pineapples.
"The goal is to create a love for language while they're young, while they're still risk-takers in class," Rosado said. "Little by little, we give them the confidence."
Foreign language is becoming more popular in elementary schools, experts say.
Parents and teachers are often fueling this expansion in their schools, backed by research that shows children have great capacity for learning languages. But the drive also comes out of a sense of national necessity, as big gaps in language skills have threatened the country's security and commercial competitiveness.
"There's a perception in this country that English is fine, English is enough to get by, and languages are only for the college-bound elite kids," said Marty Abbott, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. "That's what we're trying to overcome."
Schools are also facing unprecedented pressure under federal law to raise math and reading scores. As a result, some are inadvertently pushing languages to the margins, warns a report by the National Association of State Boards of Education.
Overall, charting the state of language programs in elementary schools is not easy. The U.S. Department of Education does not collect data on it. A Center for Applied Linguistics study in 1997 showed a decade of rising foreign language enrollment in elementary schools, but updated figures are not available. Still, those who track language trends say enrollment appears to be growing along with a national understanding of why starting young makes sense.
"There's something very special about the brain and mind during early life that makes it exactly ripe for developing language," said Susan Curtiss, a UCLA professor of linguistics.
With children in other nations often learning English or French or another language, Curtiss said the United States could move toward the norm by introducing languages early, "and not just games and songs a couple of times a week."
The government agrees. Foreign language study should be encouraged for all students starting in early grades, according to a review headed by the Department of Defense and embraced by leaders of government, industry and academia.
In Pinellas County, Fla., daily Spanish lessons begin in kindergarten at Perkins Elementary, a coveted countywide magnet school for the arts and language.
By late last spring, first-grader Emma Couture had finished two years of Spanish, as teachers integrated the language into lessons on geography and science. Emma said she likes learning about new foods and countries, and conversing in Spanish with her sister Hannah.
"She came home from her first day of class, and said, 'I speak Spanish!' " said the girls' mother, Wilma Norton. "Both of my kids may be fluent by the time they finish middle school. I just think it's going to give them all kinds of opportunities."
Spanish remains the dominant foreign language in schools, reflecting in part a trend in U.S. demographics. Hispanics are now the largest minority, and the number of children who speak a language other than English at home has more than doubled since 2003.
Studies have shown that children who begin learning a second language early in life gain a more native-sounding pronunciation, better overall grammar skills and other benefits.
Casey Whaley, a high school senior in Pinellas County who began Spanish in kindergarten, said his language study has helped his English grammar and vocabulary. Spanish never seemed like an extra, but rather, he said, "It just sort of became a part of my life."
But adding language programs in elementary schools requires money, qualified teachers and instructional time, and advocates for other subjects are competing for the same resources.