START LANGUAGE EARLY!

By: Karina Ochoa Manzo

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If the purpose of our education system is to produce well-rounded and well-prepared citizens of the world, then exposure to other languages must happen during childhood!

Throughout the first half of their life, children are expected to check off  the educational requirement boxes as preparation for future success, from preschool through K-12. As parents we are responsible for encouraging strong learning, whether it is formally at school or informally at home. Being a mother of a multicultural child and a special education teacher for elementary classes, I value a global perspective and wish there was more opportunities for children to gain exposure to multiple languages and cultures at the primary level in schools.

The Foreign Language Framework for California Public Schools states that, “the need for California students to learn and understand a foreign language is more evident today than in times past.” With this said, children exposed to a foreign language earlier would be at a true advantage knowing that our world diversifies more each day. Waiting or postponing second language acquisition for a later age means it’ll be a little more challenging to learn down the road.

In California the vast majority of public schools do not offer a second language course until children are promoted from Elementary to Middle School. Since that is the case for the most part, students don’t have that opportunity until they get to High School. In order to graduate high school, an A through G requirement (for students in California) is to choose a foreign language and study it for two years consequently. At this point they are entering their adolescence years and the brain has matured. Amy Finn, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research explains how as humans we have two memory systems that make or break the speed of success in which one gets a second language down.

We have, “the procedural memory system, which develops early in life, to learn complex things like grammar rules. The declarative memory system that helps humans learn vocabulary takes more time to develop. Children have the procedural system without the distraction of a declarative system, and so they pick up grammar more quickly than adults do.”

If you ask any pre-teen, teenager or adult that has attempted to learn a second language, they can attest to how difficult it is to accomplish! It’s a little late.  

The question then is, why do public school districts wait until secondary education? If the meaningfulness of making high school students take two years of a foreign language in order to graduate is to make them well-rounded citizens and prepare them for the world market then I must state that we are behind. We are simply starting too late. By the time these young students reach middle school they have acquired most of their language. Assuming most of them come from monolingual households, their brains think in one language and their comments and vocabulary is only in that language. The outcome of those two years might only give those students a basic language understanding that includes: numbers, colors, days of the week and basic animals (cow, cat, dog, barn animals - you name it). We cannot wait that long!

Since we live in a digital era, we can achieve this in the comfort of our homes through effective interactive apps. One such great example is Shoonya Farm Animals.  This application provides language introduction to 9 different languages (English, Spanish, German, Arabic, Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Telugu, and Gujarati) and it has different age categories so that once a child masters a noun he can move on to learning complete phrases. It is engaging and interactive and our son loves it!