Sí, Oui or Etiam: Should Languages be Taught Sooner?

Being forced to take yet another class may seem like a device set up by teachers to torment us. It seems like just one more thing to stress over and complain about, and just one more teacher you might hate. But at GFS, this choice takes on a whole new dimension. The question before us is: should language be added to an already full Lower School curriculum?

130829124351-largeSeveral studies have proven that the later you start learning a language, the harder it is to become truly fluent. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages: “Younger learners still possess the capacity to develop near native-like pronunciation and intonation in a new language.” In fact, scientists are currently debating if there is an age where it becomes impossible to become fluent in a new language (the most radical claim is 7 years old). The Guardian, Sunday 10 June 2012, 12.25 EDT

For this reason and others, GFS is still deciding whether or not to offer foreign language in our lower school. One argument for not doing so is that once we finally DO start learning French or Spanish in 7th grade, the classes are immersion and we can learn them quickly and with fluency (except for Latin which is not a spoken language). This brings up another question: should we update our language options?

One could argue that Latin is not useful unless you plan on becoming a Catholic priest. You cannot speak it with many people AT ALL. Latin does have the benefit of helping you with your grammar and provides the basis for learning Spanish, French, and Italian (and Romanian, but why choose that over Italian): However, Latin does seem of less use in today’s world than, say, Mandarin or Arabic.

Arabic has been taught in the United States more widely since 9/11. After the September 11 attacks, Professor Roger Allen of Penn stated that “We have seen a 92 percent increase. I had to hire additional instructors.” Granted, this is for colleges (and middle and high schools still do not teach Arabic nationwide), but “since 9/11, every liberal arts college around the country has decided to add Arabic,” Allen reported. “I placed my students as teachers at Temple, Swarthmore, Drexel, Philadelphia Community College, and that’s just around here.” (http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/current/node/2227)

I think that the option to add Latin in 8th grade is a good one, but if you are not a responsible student, it can lead to falling behind in school. As it is, you need permission from the principal to add this course, certifying you as a student capable of handling this extra responsibility. It also leads to a difficult choice to give up your 8th grade Project Time and most of your study halls, and most importantly the choice to take both Physics or Comparative Cultures in freshman year of high school.

Spanish and French are very useful languages to be able to speak fluently. The fact that our classes in these subjects are immersion increases your ability to become fluent faster.  However, some people’s brains find it much more difficult to learn new languages, and the prospect of answering a simple question such as “how old is your sister?” in front of fifteen classmates can seem daunting.

The idea of learning to speak a foreign language in kindergarten might seem absurd to most people and quite logical to others. A few bilingual schools in Philadelphia already require their students to do their homework in two languages. People may argue that 5 and 6-year-olds will quickly become confused if expected to speak in French at school and English at home, or vice versa. My response to that is, they’ll be far more confused if they attempt to learn French at the age of 12 or 13 because their brains are already less flexible.

The simple truth is, languages can be confusing, and the earlier you start learning them the better. We became reasonably fluent in English by the age of five, didn’t we? Why not in Spanish by age ten? It’s time for a change in our curriculum.