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Schools teach foreign languages earlier

School systems across the Washington, D.C., area are adding foreign language classes in elementary grades in response to a call from government and business leaders who say the country needs more bilingual speakers to stay competitive and even to fight terrorism.
Students Jonathan Ramos, left, and Steven Matute, right, joke around during Spanish class at Graham Rd. Elementary, in Falls Church, Va., on Aug. 2.
Students Jonathan Ramos, left, and Steven Matute, right, joke around during Spanish class at Graham Rd. Elementary, in Falls Church, Va., on Aug. 2. Mark Gong / The Washington Post
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School systems across the Washington area are adding foreign language classes in elementary grades in response to a call from government and business leaders who say the country needs more bilingual speakers to stay competitive and even to fight terrorism.

Educators say that the youngest brains have the greatest aptitude for absorbing language and that someone who is bilingual at a young age will have an easier time learning a third or fourth language later on. Compared with adults or even high school students, young children are better able to learn German with near-native pronunciation or mimic the subtle tones of Mandarin.

So last week, kindergartners at Fairfax County's Graham Road Elementary School, one of seven county elementary schools that reopen early in August, sang an alphabet song, learned how to stand in line -- and started Spanish lessons.

The 30-minute lesson, taught solely in Spanish, drew perplexed looks from 5-year-old Ngan Vo, who wasn't quite sure why classmates smiled and danced when they heard " bien " and pretended to cry when the teacher said " mal ." But teacher Yazmin Galloway says that by year's end, she expects Ngan and her classmates to have a foundation in Spanish.

"I'm pretty sure at the end of the year, I'll have speakers," Galloway said. "They will tell me how they're feeling that day. They will say, 'I can read this,' and tell me how to count."

Foreign language classes have long been a staple of high school, and several languages, such as Russian, Japanese and Arabic, have been added at that level. In addition, most Washington area school systems have offered a smattering of language programs at elementary schools for years.

But now, more and more immigrants from scores of countries are arriving in the region; in Montgomery County schools, more than 135 languages are spoken. So districts are making a concerted effort to offer instruction in more languages at more schools to even younger children.

Mandarin immersion
Beginning this school year in the District, Shepherd Elementary School is planning to offer a pre-kindergarten French immersion program -- with some lessons in French and others in English -- and Thomson Elementary is launching a Mandarin immersion class. Arlington County schools are adding a Spanish pilot program at two elementary schools.

And Fairfax is considering a long-term plan to expand foreign language instruction to each of its 137 elementary schools.

"The world is getting smaller and smaller, and I believe all students in Fairfax need to be able to speak a language other than English," said Fairfax County School Board Chairman Ilryong Moon (At Large). "As a person who came here as a teenager, I had a difficult time learning a new language. It's much better to start at an earlier age."

When Moon was growing up in South Korea, he started English classes in seventh grade. But nowadays, he said, children there learn English in elementary school. The U.S. Department of Education recently pointed out that more than 200 million children in China are studying English in primary school, but only 24,000 students in U.S. schools are learning Chinese.

Sam Hassett, 7, is part of an effort to change that equation.

At Wolftrap Elementary School in Vienna, Sam and his classmates started learning Mandarin last year. They made dumplings and read "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" in Chinese.

"It's good because when you go to that country or something you'll already know how to talk to people there," Sam explained. "I can count to 100: yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba, jiu, shi . . . "

Sam's not thinking of job prospects just yet, but his mother is.

"China is quickly becoming a dominant player in the world economy, and I want my child prepared for that," said Claire Hassett, a director of product marketing for Verizon Business. "There are a lot of countries not as rich as ours that are teaching their children a second language. I feel it's smart public policy."

So does Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who pushed for $200,000 in federal funding for Sam's class and a second Chinese language program for elementary students in Fairfax. And in January, President Bush -- citing the need for more speakers of so-called critical languages, including Chinese, Arabic and Russian -- proposed the National Security Language Initiative, a $114 million effort to support language instruction for both children and adults.

"I think it's absolutely necessary for our country for trade but also national security," Wolf said.

Still, a shift toward adding foreign language for the youngest students is not easy. School systems are already required by the federal No Child Left Behind law to improve student achievement on math and reading tests. That makes it hard to find time to teach Italian, French or Arabic. Schools that have programs can find it difficult to hire qualified teachers. Plus, adding a program can carry a significant cost.

Stress on basics
In Montgomery, a nonprofit group formed by the PTA offers foreign language programs for a fee at most elementary schools before the first bell rings, and about 5,000 children attend each year. Montgomery school board member Stephen N. Abrams (Rockville-Potomac) is a fan of the programs -- his daughters attended -- but he said young students need to concentrate on basics such as arithmetic and reading during the school day.

"Because of leave no child behind, we've decided in terms of curriculum to keep focused," Abrams said. "At least until we get everything done right, I wouldn't want to put another requirement into the day."

Prince George's County school officials expressed similar concerns about starting language instruction in elementary school. They said the district is focusing on expanding language offerings in middle school. This fall, Nicholas Orem Middle School in Hyattsville will offer Italian for the first time.

Arlington schools are fitting in a Spanish pilot program at two elementary schools -- Glebe and Henry -- by eliminating the traditional early dismissal each Wednesday. Starting in September, students in kindergarten through fifth grade will be taught Spanish for 90 minutes a week.

"The issue that we grappled with were instructional time and resources," said Mark Johnston, assistant superintendent of instruction for Arlington schools.

But Suzette Wyhs, foreign language supervisor for Loudoun schools, said you can teach young children a second language without taking away from such courses as math or science. Teachers can reinforce lessons the children have learned in other classes.

For instance, she said, third-graders who have studied ocean animals might read a book about dolphins in Spanish. "The only unknown should be the language," Wyhs said.

Loudoun County began a Spanish program in elementary schools in 2002. Now, all first- and second-graders have Spanish for 30 minutes a week, and third-, fourth- and fifth-graders get double that. This year, for the first time, sixth-graders will have a half-hour of instruction in Spanish every other day.

In Fairfax, schoolwide language programs for all 137 elementary schools would cost about $16 million a year. Today, seven Fairfax elementary schools, including Graham Road, run programs in which children are learning Italian, Latin, French or Chinese. A handful of schools also have more-intensive immersion classes.

‘Wave of the future’
Paula Patrick, foreign language coordinator for Fairfax schools, said the idea is to have each school focus on one language. A task force of educators and parents recently recommended adding the program at 24 schools a year beginning in September 2007.

Several Fairfax County School Board members said they like the idea but don't know whether the district would be able to afford such a fast expansion. "I think it's the wave of the future," said board member Kathy L. Smith (Sully). "We just have to figure out how to do it."

At Graham Road last week, first-grader Heather McCall said Spanish class is "kind of hard because I don't understand."

But Heather is determined to learn. She is even trying to talk her mother into taking a Spanish class so they can practice together.

"I want to learn three languages," Heather said. "I want to learn Spanish and Chinese, and I already know English."