While the United States does not nationally mandate the study of a foreign language in public schools, many global schools around the world have incorporated such requirements long ago. In 2001, The Center for Applied Linguistics discovered that most countries have mandatory foreign language requirements for children beginning at eight years old. However, in the United States, most students do not begin to learn another language until ninth grade, or the age of fourteen.
For both young children and teenage students, the study of a foreign language, whether in supplemental or immersion classes, offers intellectual, social, and collegiate opportunities. As young children have the ability to develop language skills early, educators and psychologists are encouraging the instruction of foreign linguistic studies from an early age. In addition, according to researcher Julia Tagliere, “being able to speak another person’s language is a critical skill, especially as increased travel opportunities, satellite programming, and international use of the internet have begun to create a truly global community.”
In this TED talk John McWhorter outlines 4 reasons to learn a new language.
Foreign Language in Elementary School
Since the 1960s, studies have shown that the best time to begin the study of a foreign language is in elementary school. Because children at this age show better mental flexibility, more creativity, divergent thinking skills, and improved listening and memory skills, kids are able to process language early on. Additionally, according to Tagliere, “strictly from a logical point of view, beginning a foreign language earlier would allow for a longer sequence of instruction, increasing the likelihood that a child would achieve true proficiency in a language.” If a student delays language instruction until high school, then he/she is only exposed to, at most, four years of direction.
In this video, Sarah Greenwood outlines the benefits of second language learning in early childhood.
Experts argue that a minimum of six to eight years is required before a student can even begin to reach full proficiency. The study of a language at an elementary age provides children with the opportunity to learn complex grammar structures, vocabulary, and linguistic intricacies that may not be possible in a secondary or collegiate four-year program. By beginning prior to high school, elementary students are able to study a language longer, which enhances their ability to truly practice their understanding of the vernacular.
While children cognitively benefit from language acquisition at an early age, physiologists also argue that children also socially and conceptually benefit from such early studies. As renowned educational psychologist Jean Piaget argues, children at a younger age “tend to be more open-minded in general in elementary school than they are at a later age. They are more interested in learning about the world around them and more enthusiastic about different cultures; this helps lead to a more positive, tolerant attitude, particularly toward the culture and country whose language they study.” Piaget extended this concept to also explain that if a child is exposed to the study of a language and culture early on, then the child will be able to incorporate global concepts into his/her “realm of understanding” at a young age. Ultimately, the study of a foreign language then acts as a new catalyst for innovative thinking in a child’s conceptual development.Foreign Language in High School
While studies prove that the best time to begin foreign language acquisition is at an early age, benefits are still gained when a student immerses him/herself in language studies at an older age as well. While students have an easier experience processing new languages at a younger age, many high school programs provide the instructional support necessary for students to move towards fluency—and even at the high school age, proficiency is still certainly attainable.
As high school students immerse themselves in the study of a new language, research supports that such students often possess “outstanding communication skills, both written and oral,” according to Jarold Weatherford. As students immerse themselves in the study of foreign language, they are actually creating a scaffold for learning new concepts that extend far beyond the foreign language classroom. In fact, recent research reported by Rutgers-Camden supports that the study of foreign languages actually fosters a better understanding of a student’s native language.
As high school students begin to look towards college and future employment opportunities, the study of a language on a student’s transcript or resume provides insight of intellectual abilities and social awareness. As education consultant Kimberly Stezala supports, “most competitive colleges are looking for applicants with four years of foreign language, in the same language.” In looking beyond college, a second language is now a vital requirement for a growing number of careers. Also, according to Weatherford, “many report that their foreign language skills often enhance their mobility and improve their chances for promotion.”
Ultimately, the study of a foreign language not only teaches students new communicative skills, but it also provides an enriching learning experience of culture and society. As high school students move beyond the high school classroom, they are faced with the reality that millions of Americans speak languages aside from English. As wisely explained by Rutgers-Camden, “Studying another language, any other language, will help you understand the issues faced by Americans who speak languages other than English, will help you understand the immigrant experience, may help you understand your neighbor, your family, or yourself. And look at the world: America is less isolated[…] and the world is more interconnected than ever.”
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