TELL US: What is the value of children learning foreign languages early?

Friday, April 6, 2012 | 11:14 a.m. CDT

Census figures show that the percentage of Americans living in homes where languages other than English are spoken is on the rise. The country is becoming increasingly diverse, and it stands to reason that future generations will be exposed to more languages than those who came before us. (And research has shown that being bilingual is good for the brain.)

At the same time, the percentage of elementary and middle schools that offer foreign language courses has fallen significantly since 1997, according to a Missourian article from last year. In a country that is gaining diversity, some parents are responding by taking their own steps to expose children to foreign languages. For some people, that might mean checking out books in Spanish from the library. For others, it could mean enrolling their students in Columbia's schools that specialize in French and Chinese teaching.

We would like to hear from you about your experiences with and feelings about early childhood foreign language learning.

What is the value of children learning foreign languages early?

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Ellis Smith April 7, 2012 | 6:07 a.m.

Linguists have said for years that the best time to learn a spoken second language is when a child is young. One reason is that children aren't reticent about making mistakes nor do they fear uttering embarrassing (for an adult) things.

Consider how a child in an English-speaking home in an English-speaking country learns to speak English: by listening to adults and older children speak, then mimicking what they hear. Some of the results can be very funny - but the child persists and his/her abilities improve. For a second language the emphasis should be first and foremost conversational competency; study of the written/literary language can come later. I wish I'd had access to conversational Spanish as a child.

Another aspect is that even if one gains proficiency in a second language it will grow "rusty" if it isn't regularly exercised. That might best be taken care of outside classrooms (language clubs, etc.).

People ask me about technical Spanish. Less a problem than conversational Spanish, because many Spanish and English technical terms have common roots and are easily recognizable in both languages. Essential grammar and vocabulary are larger problems. Also, in Latin America many technical people speak and understand English.

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frank christian April 7, 2012 | 9:59 a.m.

Sent to Bordeaux, France in 1950's USAF, married GI's brought their families and were given a "station allowance". Single men were housed at the Bordeaux Airport in hurriedly thrown up 8 man wooden huts. Most "marrieds" moved into a nearby resort town where they rented from French landlords. Being single at the time, I had to throw that in.

The point is, within little more than 60 days, 6 and 7 year old American kids, after playing with French kids, were acting as interpreters for American parents in conversations with their landlords!

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Ellis Smith April 8, 2012 | 10:53 a.m.

One caveat to my above post. While small children easily absorb a second language, it's important that what they hear and recite is proper grammar. On the other hand, that's equally important if we are talking about how they are absorbing English. Bad language habits learned early are difficult to break! This does not mean formal teaching has to be involved, but it does suggest that what the child hears should be the language as properly spoken.

Interesting point. I'm aware that college textbooks covering a variety of subjects are also published translated into other languages; however, it appears that more than a few texts covering engineering subjects are used in Latin America as published - in English. I have actually seen this.

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frank christian April 8, 2012 | 2:36 p.m.

I had always thought of the American kids in France in relation to the theory of our politically correct educators and politicians whom have continually raved about "unfairness" of requiring new arrivals to learn our language. Knowing all the while of the absolute tragedy of leaving them utterly dependent upon the few able to understand their speech.

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Joy Mayer April 9, 2012 | 8:44 p.m.

Thanks so much for the comments, guys. I hope you can take time to answer the questionnaire! (I can even invite you in my remedial French if you like!)

Joy Mayer
Columbia Missourian

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Derrick Fogle April 10, 2012 | 12:07 a.m.

Learning multiple languages helps develop abstract conceptualization skills. The more parallel the development of language skills - inevitably early in life because language is learned early - the better the abstraction. Much later in life, learning other languages becomes more foreign, and the brain works more as a very fast translator, than thinking abstractly and being able to express in multiple languages.

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Ellis Smith April 10, 2012 | 4:25 a.m.

Derrick's points are well worth noting, but do these things exist in a vacuum? If someone had come to see my parents in the late 1930s (which is when I would have been of the age we're discussing) and suggested to them that I should be learning Spanish, I doubt my parents would have been receptive. For starters, my parents were poor, and while they were always interested in and supportive of my education they would have had a hard time believing that by the time I was in my 40s I would be able to make direct and serious use of knowledge of Spanish. (Among their shortcomings, they could not see the future, nor could I.)

Perhaps I can be forgiven because I tend to think of education largely in practical terms. We appear to have an entire campus of this multi-campus "System" where students, faculty and alumni are guilty of that, but campus graduates don't have much problem finding well-paid employment.

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