By Alice Chen
What helps children boost everything from math skills to standardized tests scores? Mais oui, it’s learning a foreign language. Understanding even the basics of another language increases cognitive skills and equips children in an increasingly interconnected world (and is especially helpful in a country where minorities will soon be the majority) . While many districts have language programs at the middle and high school level, it's better to start even earlier: Research suggests the window for language learning really blossoms starting at birth and begins to shrink by middle school.
If you want to introduce a foreign language program at your child’s school, the first step is to spread the word. Talk to teachers, parents, and the principal, and tell everyone about the link between learning a second language and high test scores. Terry Caccavale, a K-12 foreign language coordinator who successfully started a Spanish language program in the Holliston, Massachusetts elementary schools, says this will help you build a strong case, especially in an environment of tight purse strings and budget cuts. In addition to sharing this story, two great sites to help you make the case are American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and Ñandutí.
Once you’ve piqued the interest of a few parents, teachers, and the principal, invite a language teacher to give a demo at your next parents’ night or PTO meeting. Marcia Rosenbusch, an adjunct associate professor at Iowa State University who specializes in K-8 world language instruction, suggests getting someone engaging and skilled in the latest instruction techniques, such as no-English lessons that use gestures and objects to clarify meaning.
It’s tempting to get people excited about learning Spanish, for example, but it’s crucial to hold off on choosing which language to offer. That’s a decision best suited to the latter stages of the process, according to the classic textbook Languages and Children: Making the Match: New Languages for Young Learners, Grades K-8. Language choice can be divisive. It's best to go with the language you can find the most qualified teacher for, advises Professor Mary Lynn Redmond, chair of Wake Forest University's education department. Instead, gather a diverse committee of parents, teachers, administrators, and the principal together to form your language team. As a group, do some legwork and visit different types of language programs. Ask questions like: "Are students happy? Are teachers engaged? Does the class move along at a good pace? What do we want to recreate?"
Once you’ve discovered the possibilities, consider your school’s particular goals (while keeping a realistic budget in mind). This’ll help your program take shape. The most basic introduction to another language can start relatively quickly as an optional lunchtime or after-school program for kids of mixed grade levels. For this scenario, you’ll need permission to regularly use a school facility (such as a classroom, the library, or a resource room), and an understanding with the principal about what materials or support, if any, the school is willing to provide. If you're a bit more ambitious — and your school can afford to pay a part-time language teacher — try a once-a-week class for each grade level, which will allow for increased learning and spur more interest in another language.
Experts are divided about whether it's worth offering language programs that run outside school hours. Some say any exposure is better than nothing, but others like Professor Rosenbusch caution that less formal programs run by parents or untrained instructors don’t help kids develop "meaningful" language skills.
In a tight economy, your greatest challenge is most likely funding. Even for an afterschool or lunchtime program, your best bet is to hire a trained instructor. Starting at your school, see if one of the teachers has experience teaching a foreign language. You can also check your district’s substitute teacher roster, or find out if another local school has a good language teacher. Otherwise, an outside agency such as Berlitz, a nationwide company which offers onsite classes and charges $375 per student for a class that runs an hour per week for 30 weeks, might do the trick. Your school or district could contract with the teacher or agency, and participating families would likely split the cost since the program is held outside of school hours.
For a once-a-week class that’s part of the curriculum, your school or district will most likely recruit and hire an accredited teacher. If you have trouble finding a teacher within the school district, outside agencies can provide teachers at an hourly rate. (e.g. Berlitz is roughly $75 per hour.) Either way, the language instructor's salary — plus any materials and other costs associated with the program — would be a line item in your school or district's budget. See budget guidelines from the National Foreign Language Center for guidance on what to plan for.
To make sure your program's around for the long haul, apply for funding from your district and state. There are federal grants like the Foreign Language Assistance Program, but they're usually short-term and are at risk for cuts. You may also be able to fundraise creatively, through the PTO or even from international businesses in your community.
Experts say it's best to have a professional run your language program. Parents won't have much say in exactly what goes on in the classroom, but they can give input through surveys and discussions to ensure the program meets your stated goals. Remember, what's invested in the children’s language class is directly related to the results, so be sure to keep pushing for a program that meets frequently, uses the foreign language (nearly) exclusively, and is integrated with what’s being taught in the other classrooms. For example, if children are learning about insects in science class, in Spanish class they can track butterfly routes to Mexico and write simple postcards about the topic.
Most importantly, stay involved. Keep your eye on evaluations from curriculum reviews, testing through the National Online Early Language Learning Assessment, and outside specialists. In order to keep your language program going, always spread the message about its value.
"Parents play a key role in communicating about successes," Redmond says. So don’t shy away from spreading the word.
Boa sorte! (Good luck!)