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Foreign Language in Elementary School (FLES): A Boost for Your Child

By Judy Martialay | Published: April 23, 2019

Imagine an elementary school that will give your children the best preparation they will need to get ahead. It will help them achieve their best potential. It will prepare them, challenge them and enable them. At a time when global reach is expanding (and U.S. colleges are enigmatically shutting down their language programs), Foreign Language in Elementary School (FLES) classes will be a must-have at such a school, and provide a foundation for our children to cooperate and compete with their counterparts around the world.

This is the world that I advocate for and have for the past 40 years as a teacher, parent, grandparent and concerned citizen. I taught Spanish and French for more than 30 years in the public schools of New York and have witnessed language studies sliding backward instead of improving. I have heard legislators and decisionmakers telling me that “there are other priorities” without addressing the need to educate world citizens who speak more than English.

A fourth grade student's ink painting and 
calligraphy, celebrating Chinese New Year.

And so I try to tell as many people as often as I can about the urgent need to include language studies in schools as early as elementary school.

According to Education Week, only about 25% of elementary schools in the U.S., public or private, offer any form of FLES program. This is where the problem begins. In order to counter our monolingual nation, we should mandate that every child have the opportunity to learn a second language early, and to continue learning that language until he or she is proficient—through high school would be ideal.

Many studies indicate that learning another language increases mental ability: cognitive and critical thinking skills, memory, concentration and verbal ability. Yes, it does. It also offers children a better understanding of their native language and an enriched experience of other cultures. After all, the world comes into the school when children learn another language. But in order for these benefits to sink in and take root, we need to start early and keep at it, as soon as we begin talking to them as babies, and then when they start school.

We can learn a language at any age, but starting young with FLES has big advantages:

  • Children have more time to learn a language. It takes many years to become truly fluent.
  • Children are wired to learn languages. They have the ability to repeat any sound in another language and to speak with almost native pronunciation, enabling them to be understood, and able to hear and understand better. They acquire a comfort level that comes from growing up with the language.
  • The personal connections that learning another language provides can make other cultures come alive and, more directly, make lessons about global and local diversity easier to impart to young students.
  • Languages add multiple dimensions to other areas of study, such as social studies, art and music.

What Does a FLES Class Look Like?

Mr. D teaches Mandarin Chinese in our local elementary school in Long Island, where all children begin Mandarin in kindergarten. They can change to Spanish in third grade and to other languages in middle school.

A third grade student's description of a 
family member, written in Chinese characters.

Children address Mr. D using the Mandarin word for “teacher,” lăoshī.  They use a variety of activities, games and songs to learn how to greet each other and ask how they are; to talk about the weather, school, countries, food, and other topics. Children learn body parts in Mandarin, and play “Pin the Tail on the Dragon.” The children learn the pronunciation of Mandarin, including the Mandarin tones, by repetition, as well as identifying and writing Chinese characters.

At this age, children accept this new language without question. They learn to think in a different way. This ability to express ideas differently promotes mental flexibility and at an age when they’re not embarrassed to make mistakes or try something new.

Students of all abilities can succeed because there is ample time for practice with the language in school, and their engagement and interest is evident:  children willingly practice Mandarin with one another and with native speakers outside of class.

If your school district doesn’t have FLES classes, here are some steps you can take:

  1. Get involved with your school to understand the rationale behind their language curriculum.
  2. Do your research into other nearby schools with language programs to learn how and why they have them.
  3. Build your case and take it to the PTO/PTA, school board, principal—whoever is in charge of budget and curriculum decisions and ask.
  4. Support the teachers as the program gets off the ground.
  5. Bring back alumni who have gone on to study language in college, study abroad, accept an international work assignment—and encourage them to present to influencers and decision makers.

But know that this will take time. In the meantime, build up language learning excitement for students by promoting other elementary-age programs in the community or online, private tutoring or summer camps!

About the Author

Judy Martialay taught French and Spanish at all levels for over 30 years in Bethpage Schools. She is on the Public Advocacy Committee of the New York State Association of Foreign Language Teachers. She has written, illustrated and published ¡Hola! Let’s Learn Spanish and Bonjour! Let’s Learn French. Both books give children 6–10 and their parents a fun introduction learning the language. Her website is polyglotkidz.com

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