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An ‘early’ focus on world language

The Grosse Pointe Academy’s world language program begins in Early School for students as young as 2-1/2 years old.

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The Grosse Pointe Academy’s Early School world language program allows children to understand very early that there are other languages spoken by people who share their world.

According to Harry T. Chugani, M.D., chief of the Division of Pediatric Neurology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, children begin to lose their innate ability to learn a second language around the age of ten. His theory is reinforced by Dr. Susan Curtiss, professor of linguistics at UCLA, who says, “The power to learn language is so great in the young child that it doesn’t seem to matter how many languages you throw in their way. . . They can learn as many spoken languages as you can allow them to hear.”

Geoffrey Willans, the late English author and journalist, once said, “You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.”

Perhaps taking Willans’ advice, in 2014, Michael Gove, England’s minister of education, put into place a compulsory program for children up to 11 years old to learn a world language. The rationale was self-evident, it was explained at the time.

“We want our young people to have the best possible start in life – that is why, as part of our plan for education, we want every child to learn a world language,” said Nicky Morgan, who succeeded Gove shortly after program implementation. “It doesn’t just help students to understand different cultures and countries, it opens up the world.”

Opening up the world, even for the youngest children, does not seem to be a problem these days, however, with just about every corner of the planet one tap or click away. And while the ability to communicate with people who speak a different language is important — a function likely to be easily facilitated by a future smartphone app — it is not the most important reason that the youngest of students need to learn another language.

“The extra benefits of learning languages indisputably is a way of improving the brain,” Gove said, arguing that, “It is literally the case that learning languages makes you smarter. The neural networks in the brain strengthen as a result of language learning.”

Budget restraints

In uncertain times, however, with even more uncertain budgets, many schools and school systems are reducing language programs for elementary-age students, too often to the detriment of those most able to benefit from a second (or third) language.

Instruction in world languages at the elementary school level in the U.S., obviously, is not new. Indeed such teaching was done in ancient civilizations and in the schools of America from the 1630s and on. In fact, teaching world languages in elementary schools was relatively widespread in many areas of the United States until World War I, even though the primary purposes of this instruction during those years were to aid in assimilating ethnic immigrant groups into the American way of life.

Fast-forward to today; amidst at best tepid government support for world-languages in schools, still, there has been some progress.

In October of last year, the U.S. Department of Education announced the award of more than $71 million in new and non-competing continuation grants to help strengthen the capacity and performance of American education in world languages, cultural understanding and international studies. The grants fell under the Fulbright-Hays Act, also known as the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961.

“The world is becoming more interconnected than ever before and our programs and grants are helping students to acquire the skills, knowledge and understanding they will need to compete on equal footing for 21st-century careers,” said then-U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. in announcing the grants. “Employers from a cross-section of education, business, and government are expecting our graduates to be able to communicate and collaborate with peers in a global context. The grants help to achieve exactly that, by providing teachers, students and our communities with the opportunities and resources for ensuring our nation’s capacity for global competitiveness.”

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World language has played a big part of the school’s Early School curriculum since the school first opened.

At the state level, however, despite a little help from Washington, budget restraints have caused many public districts — and even a number of independent schools — to curtail language instruction. And when it comes to offering world language to the youngest children, some districts offer no language exposure at all.

This wide spectrum of world language programs is a national phenomenon that is manifested at the state level, said Ruta Couet, a world language specialist at the South Carolina Department of Education. “Out of 634 public elementary schools in South Carolina, 115 offer some form of language instruction. Of those 115, only 13 offer daily language instruction, according to the state education department.

“There are many reasons for this,” Couet said of the disparity, “ranging from funding, staffing, to a host of different goals for early language programs or no clearly articulated goals at all.”

Some local districts say that in the age of accountability for the core subjects, and with ever-changing curriculum mandates, offering world language is not a priority, or they just simply don’t have time to fit it into the school day.

Committed to world language

For administrators at The Grosse Pointe Academy, teaching a world language to its students, including its youngest in pre-kindergarten, has never been more important, and fitting it into the school day has never been a problem.

“Offering a world language at a young age is of critical importance for our program offering,” said Jennifer Kendall, assistant head of school for early school education and admissions. “It allows children to understand very early that there are other languages spoken by people who share their world, which is what they are just starting to discover through their work in geography and map development. Their brains are open for all that they are exposed to in the classroom. The education of the whole child, a philosophy of learning that exists from our Montessori Early School through grade 8 at the Academy, includes the learning of a world language in addition to art, creative movement, music and physical education.”

The world language program is not a new development either at the Academy.

According to Molly McDermott, who served many years as GPA’s admissions director, language arts played a big part of the school’s curriculum from day one.

“French has been taught in the Early School since the Academy’s very beginning,” she said. “And before that, French was taught when it was a Sacred Heart school from early school through grade 12, primarily because the Religious of the Sacred Heart were of French origin. So when the school opened in 1969 as The Grosse Pointe Academy, it kept some of the traditions of the nuns, which is why we have the French program that exists today. We then eventually began offering Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.”

Kendall said the school’s commitment to teaching world language to its youngest students has never been stronger.

“Introducing a world language at an early age, starting at 2-1/2 years old in our early school, is very natural for children,” she said. “As they continue to learn the English language, they are just as excited to learn French. While it is taught in a fun way, the children learn to count, learn their numbers as well as the names of their family members in French. They especially enjoy practicing each word with a French accent.”

Kendall added that each child in the Early School program progresses in language arts at his or her own rate.

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World language instructor Claudia Leslie said that exploring the world through language is a vital part of how she approaches teaching the younger students at GPA and adds that class size is critical in that approach.

“Preparation for learning the language begins indirectly with daily readings to the class and more directly through activities that make the student aware of the sounds in words,” she said. “Letters of the alphabet are introduced phonetically and once a child has mastered a number of sounds, the moveable alphabet is introduced for spelling phonetic words. This process continues until our Montessori directresses recognize readiness for the actual decoding of words.”

Kendall said there also are supplemental materials for developing language skills for the school’s youngest students.

“Each classroom has a selection of pre-language materials, pre-primers, beginning and more advanced reading books,” she said.

Small class size key

Claudia Leslie, who has been the Academy’s Early School through grade 5 French instructor for more than 11 years, said that exploring the world through language is a vital part of how she approaches teaching the younger students at GPA and adds that class size is so critical in that approach.

“The small class sizes at the Academy allow me to nurture the potential of each child, which also allows the students to more quickly discover their unique strengths and passions,” she said. “I make sure that each student gets plenty of opportunities to speak French during the class. I truly believe that giving a child the opportunity to learn a language at an early age is a great advantage because they acquire it in such a natural manner. In addition, I think our language program provides the kids with a deeper understanding of one’s own native language as well as a broader global awareness.”

All students at the Academy continue with their French instruction until they finish the 4th grade. Then, beginning in the 5th grade, students decide between continuing on with French or moving to Spanish as a single language with the intent to follow their language into middle school, where Mandarin Chinese also is presented as an option.

Kendall noted that most of the school’s graduates typically enter French 2 or Spanish 2 upon getting into high school.

“Their super strong base in French has even propelled a number of students to enter French 3 in their freshman year of high school,” she said.

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About The Grosse Pointe Academy
The Grosse Pointe Academy is an independent, coeducational day school serving children age 2-1/2 through Grade 8. We foster an inclusive environment that respects all cultures and religious beliefs. We seek to remain faithful to our heritage as a former Academy of the Sacred Heart and to those who through their Catholic faith and perseverance sought to preserve and enhance the legacy of this past for generations. Incorporated as a non-profit institution, The Grosse Pointe Academy is directed by a Board of Trustees working together to serve the Southeastern Michigan community.
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