Thursday, August 28, 2008

A second language for English students

“Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.”

— David Barry, writer and humorist

School started on Monday and while the public elementary schools my children attend are excellent, I am always peeved that a second language is not part of the core curriculum for English-only speaking children. (Peabody is the exception.)

The State of California spends over $100 million annually teaching English as a second language (ESL) to children and adults.
With no additional financial outlay, we could introduce a second language to English-only speaking children today. As education proponents are fond of saying — our children are our greatest resource.
In almost every classroom in the Santa Barbara Elementary School District at least one child is fluent in a language other than English. The majority of these children speak Spanish. The language spoken is not relevant: The relevance is the child’s ability to share the language with others.
Here’s how second-language learning in elementary schools could work.
Each day, for approximately 5-10 minutes, one child in the classroom who speaks a language other than English becomes the “language expert.” (Everyone likes to be an expert.) That child shares with her peers a few helpful phrases in her native tongue. Things like, “Where is the bathroom?” and “May I have a hamburger with fries, please?” Each day, the same child — or another depending on who wants to — reviews and adds new words and phrases to the vocabulary.
The learning is self-directed. Children ask for specific information and the “language expert” replies with answers. The children practice words and phrases by talking to each other. The instruction becomes more advanced as the children advance both in conversational skill and age.
Learning a second language conversationally, while young, follows the natural progression of language acquisition. Children learn to speak their native language long before they learn to read and write it.
Research shows that early study of a second language results in numerous benefits for children including enhanced cognitive abilities, gains in academic achievement, and positive attitudes toward diversity.
The best time to start learning that second language? Experts agree — before age ten.
In a study of 22 countries conducted by the Center for Applied Linguistics in 2001, researchers found most of the countries surveyed — including Australia, Germany, Italy and China — had widespread or mandatory foreign language requirements for elementary school students, some beginning at age eight. Students in the United States generally begin foreign language acquisition in high school.
As a product of high school Spanish myself, I confess I didn’t retain much and have never been comfortable speaking the language.
In today’s global economy, it seems silly that a second language for English-only speaking children is not mandatory in elementary school. We don’t need more money; just a little more thinking “outside the box.”
Our children are our greatest resource.

Gina Perry writes a political column for the Daily Sound that appears Thursdays. She can be reached at

1 comment:

bluesky said...

A great site for ESL students is is a dual-purpose site for building an English
vocabulary and raising money for under privileged children in the most
impoverished places around the world.

Check it out at