A new school year has started, and students fill the halls with excitement en route to their classrooms at .
In Ms. Joan Yarmovsky's 6th grade, the class is learning its first few French words. Teacher and students have set up a small decorum - a Bistrot table, a restaurant sign. In the distance one can make out the Eiffel Tower. They are taping a dialogue to be watched on the tall smart board screen, and perhaps to be shown to visiting parents later in the week during Curriculum Night.
"Bonjour. Mon nom est Claire. Comment tu t'appelles?” says one student.
"Je m'appelle Zoé," says another.
"Et mon nom est Chloé. Je suis de Londres,” a third says.
The delight of the students is completely exhilarating. They have been able to do all this and more after only a couple of weeks of introductory French instruction.
Language learning is such a joyous exercise for young minds. And in fact, the earlier children will start learning a second language, the easier they get it.
The mechanism by which the brain learns a language is only slowly beginning to be understood.
According to University of Washington's Patricia Kuhl, a cognitive scientist, "If you look at your age and assess your skill at acquiring a language, you see a very dramatic learning curve that's the reverse of what we typically expect."
Kuhl, who is internationally recognized for her research on how early language exposure alters brain development, points out that while adults learn and master many other cognitive skills much easier than children do - for language learning, the situation is completely reversed.
"In the area of language, from birth to seven years of age, kids are masters", says Kuhl. "Whether they hear a single language, or two, or three, they will acquire them effortlessly."
But starting at age 7, Kuhl says, that capacity begins to decline in biological stages and "we don't learn second languages as well."
Foreign languages in Massachusetts schools
Massachusetts schools, in general, have through the past decade seen a steady erosion in the amount of foreign language instruction, and the decline is especially harsh in elementary school programs.
Springfield, for example, was offering 14 years ago foreign languages in all its elementary schools, including French, Spanish, Chinese and Russian. The Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory at Brown University was commending the Springfield program, and was advertising it as a model to other school districts.
But since 2004, the Springfield program has been drastically reduced. According to Azell M. Cavaan, the chief communications officer of the district, this happened because “there has been a shift in focus to math, science, and English-language arts." The Springfield foreign languages program lost the majority of its elementary school teachers and two thirds of its middle school teachers.
The story of Springfield is hardly unique. Today, the towns of Newton, Wellesley, Arlington, Cambridge, Concord and Lexington have no Foreign Language instruction in their elementary schools. In the case of Lexington, for example, a grades 3-5 Spanish program has existed until 2007.
And the same trend can be seen nationally. The Center for Applied Linguistics, in its 2008 survey, found that the number of U.S. Elementary Schools teaching foreign languages has decreased to 15 percent from a high of 25 percent in 1997.
What can explain the decline?
Since 2001, the U.S. Government, through its No Child Left Behind legislation, has tied Title I school funding to Adequate Yearly Progress on standardized test results in Math and English Language.
According to the law, the definition of curricular standards is left to the states - along with the implementation of the standardized test. In the case of Massachusetts, the MCAS will test Math and English Language Arts in grades 3-8 and in grade 10. Grades 5, 8 and 10 are also tested in Science.
The state of Massachusetts also has standards for other disciplines - the Arts, History and Social Sciences. But since these disciplines are not tested by the MCAS, school districts across the state have an incentive to stress instruction in the basic subjects - Math and English, as well as Science for the years it is tested by the MCAS.
This discounts the fact that the standards movement, which resulted in the creation of the MCAS, was all about teaching math and English classes in a smarter way, and not about extending their instructional time at the expense of the other subjects.
In the case of Foreign Languages, in particular, the Massachusetts curricular standards state very specifically that: "Foreign language programs should begin in elementary school, since language acquisition is more easily accomplished at a young age, and continue beyond grade twelve."
Thus, according to state standards, districts should offer pre-K to grade 12 sequences in foreign languages, for all students. In the upper grades, students should also have the opportunity to study several modern or classical languages, if they so desire.
Reversing the trend
Some parents have began to speak up in support of foreign languages in elementary schools.
Nathan Li, a Lexington dad, says that language, like music, "stimulates children's brain with memory and feelings,” and that learning different languages will exhibit different patterns, grammar, decoration of words and tone.
"It not only helps children develop critical thinking,” he said, "but also exposes the children to different world culture elements. "
And Bella Tsvetkova, a Lexington resident, says that her daughter started Spanish in elementary school and learned quite a lot, but then, when the program was cancelled, she forgot it and is taking French in high school.
"Learning foreign language in elementary schools is a good investment,” Tsvetkova said. "The US has such an opportunity to have native speakers as teachers of young kids so they learn while communicating. They might even learn to speak without accent at that age."
More parent testimonials can be found on a web site recently created to advocate for foreign languages in Lexington Elementary Schools - http://lex4lang.org.
Some of Lexington's own neighboring towns can serve as good examples with their Elementary School foreign language programs.
Lincoln students, for example, begin to study Spanish in grade 3. Bedford students have the opportunity to choose between French and Spanish starting with grade 3. Weston students begin Spanish instruction in first grade, and Carlisle students begin Spanish in Kindergarten.
The Lexington School Committee and the Superintendent have discussed the re-introduction of foreign languages in elementary schools already several times in the past couple of years, always with a desire to find the appropriate funds. And at the beginning of the current academic year, School Committee member Jessie Steigerwald has asked the district to evaluate again the costs of a K-5 foreign language program in Lexington schools.
But creating a foreign language program in elementary schools will require support from the entire community.
Lexington resident Harvy Simkowitz points out that Lexington is a very diverse town culturally, and that it is important to show our commitment to foreign-language education by starting school kids off early in languages different than English.
"In our growing diverse country and global world, foreign language ability is becoming more and more important for commerce and cultural exchange," Simkowitz said. "Let’s become a leader in the area of foreign languages as we already are in English, Math and Science."