Parents want primary school students to learn foreign languages ​​– but where?

London Carrasco, left, and Jonah Meyer, center, listen to teacher Renessa Copeland sing the Spanish words for different emotions at Semillitas Early Language Center in northwest Washington. (Lexey Swall/For The Washington Post)

My 2 year old son’s the first language is Spanglish. He loves ice in his agua, the color azul, and las vacas, or cows. “Baby vacas”, in particular. Her favorite song lately is “Señora Vaca”, a little ditty thanking the mother cow for all the tasty dairy products she provides.

“Sing! he asked recently with the insistence of a toddler.

“I can’t. I don’t know,” I tell him. “It’s in Spanish.”

For the hours I’ve invested in evening classes and vacation language schools in Central America trying to learn the language as an adult, Advanced Spanglish might be the best I’ve ever done. Like any parent, I hope for the best for the next generation.

That’s why I was thrilled to find him a Spanish immersion daycare program. Since he was 5 months old, he has spent his days with caregivers who call him muñeco, or doll, and who teach him that A is for avión, rather than airplane. He plays with coches y camiónes in the morning and cars and trucks in the evening.

Research shows that early language learning results in better pronunciation and higher levels of proficiency, as well as cognitive benefits associated with bilingualism. But, of course, all the benefits accumulate with prolonged exposure. I worry about the next step.

The majority of foreign language programs in the United States begin only in middle school or even high school. As my son approaches kindergarten and primary school, I don’t want him to lose his second language in this years-long vacuum. (For a list of Washington-area elementary schools that offer language classes, click here.)

It’s a growing concern for Washington-area parents, many of whom are bilingual themselves or seek similar types of language-focused child care or nannies to give their children an early start in another language.

“What we’re seeing is that parents are really demanding it from their schools,” said Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “I call them language moms instead of football moms.”

The council hopes to tap into the energy of these parents in a campaign that is underway to build foreign language capacity in schools across the country, from an early age.

“As the demographics of this country change, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore that we live in communities that are already multilingual,” Abbott said. “Languages ​​are an important asset.

According to the most recent survey funded by the Department of Education, in 2008 only 15% of US public elementary schools offered foreign language instruction. That figure was down from 24% a decade earlier, a drop that educators attribute to budget cuts and an increased focus on math and reading inspired by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Poor and rural districts are the least likely to offer a foreign language. But even Loudoun County, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, cut an elementary foreign language curriculum that was once one of the most comprehensive in the state. All students in grades one through six received Spanish lessons. Now the foreign language starts again in the seventh grade.

Learning a foreign language in middle school is late, compared to many developed countries which require the teaching of one or sometimes two foreign languages ​​in elementary school. And that jumps over many years, experts say, children are uniquely wired to learn language in the most natural way, through play and exploration.

Parents often turn to private schools, which are more than three times more likely to offer foreign language programs to primary school students, according to the national survey. Private tutoring centers or weekend language schools are also booming, Abbott said.

But there are promising trends in public education.

In Washington, where I live, the public school system got funding this year to expand foreign language offerings in elementary schools. And some of the most sought-after charter schools, including Mundo Verde and Yu Ying, offer intensive foreign language instruction starting in kindergarten. Under pressure from parents, Arlington County expanded its foreign language instruction in elementary schools, pursuing a plan to make it available throughout the county. And Prince George’s County added foreign language classes to 10 more elementary schools this year.

Nationally, full or partial immersion programs, where all or part of university courses are taught in a foreign language, have developed since the 1970s.

Nancy Rhodes, former director of foreign language education for the Center for Applied Linguistics, said immersion programs are the “shining star” of the foreign language movement because they achieve the best results in developing language skills. fluidity.

Two-way or double-immersion programs are also increasingly popular. With this model, students spend half the day in English and the other half in a target language, and the class is made up of students who speak English at home and those who speak the target language at home. In this way, they can be language models for each other.

Cleveland Elementary is one of seven elementary schools in the district that offer a bilingual program.

In a kindergarten class, one morning in September, the students were discussing the question of the day, or la pregunta del día: Qué hace esta persona en la escuela? (What does this person do at school?) They talked in Spanish about what the principal or gym teacher or other staff do all day.

Upstairs, second-grade students were writing essays in Spanish. In the upper grades, students write and speak fluently in both languages, said principal Dawn Feltman. On the first day of school, she asked an English speaker to speak to the parents in Spanish and a Spanish speaker to speak to the parents in English.

Utah became the first state to legislate funding for the large-scale implementation of dual language and immersion programs in 2008. Delaware is rolling out a plan to expand the programs to more schools.

One of the reasons the programs are on the rise, Rhodes said, is that foreign language teachers also teach core academic courses, and so are rolled into the school district’s standard funding formula. Programs that rely on itinerant teachers are more vulnerable to budget cuts.

Elementary school foreign language programs, or FLES programs, are common in the Washington area, offering instruction one to five days a week and aimed at a beginner level of proficiency.

Many school districts strive to integrate the grade level curriculum into these foreign language classes. This helps reinforce what students are learning and expand their academic vocabulary in a second language so they aren’t just talking about colors, numbers and songs, typical beginning lessons for children.

Ideally, I would like my son to spend more than an hour or two a week in another language.

In a few months, our family will be participating in a citywide lottery to enroll him in kindergarten. It’s become a rite of passage for many DC families, a rite we approach with some appreciation (state-funded preschool is still relatively rare in this country) and some trepidation (there’s no has no guarantee that he will be assigned to a school that we favor).

Teaching foreign languages ​​isn’t our only priority, but it’s near the top of my list. The competition may be tough, because I know I’m not the only one to think so.

Michael Alison Chandler covers education for The Washington Post. To comment on this story, email [email protected] or visit

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