Lorie Shetter, BCD Preschool and Elementary French Teacher
World Language instruction at Boulder Country Day School starts with students as young as 2 1/2-years old in our preschool. Research analyzed by the education support organization, Ertheo, shows that a major benefit of teaching world language to very young students is an increased ability to connect to other cultures and build tolerance (https://www.ertheo.com/blog/en/learning-a-second-language#connect). Both objectives strongly support BCD’s mission. When working with very young students, the focus is on providing exposure to the new language and instilling a curiosity for cultures around the world. Come Kindergarten, instruction begins to include lots of sensory lessons, allowing the children to explore their world and the new language with their sense of smell and taste.
From a biological standpoint, research shows that the brain is uniquely able to acquire languages at an early age (https://www.ertheo.com/blog/en/learning-a-second-language/#learnfast). Dr. Paul Thompson, a neurology professor at UCLA, and his team, found that the brain systems that specialize in learning new languages grow rapidly from around six years old until puberty, after which they basically shut down and stop growing from ages 11 to 15, during puberty (https://newsroom.ucla.edu/). Other research has proven that a child’s innate ability to discern and reproduce the sounds of a language begin to reduce by age 7.
Thus, preadolescence can be thought of as a sweet spot for language acquisition. With that in mind, language instruction at BCD shifts more towards comprehending and being understood. In 1st and 2nd grade, students proceed into more role-playing activities and begin interacting with learned phrases to create simple conversation. In upper-elementary, from 3rd – 5th grade, we employ a proven method of teaching language that provides ‘comprehensible input’ and intense interaction with the target language in predictable scenarios using a myriad of props, images and gestures. This method of teaching, also known as ‘anchoring’, has been shown to not only be the most effective for acquiring a second language but is shown to increase students’ critical thinking skills and ability to focus as students learn that they need to be observant and attentive in order to figure out the content. (refer to: https://languagekids.com/why-comprehensible-input-is-vital-for-foreign-language-learning/)
Anchoring is aNeuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) (https://nlp-now.co.uk/what-is-nlp/) technique rooted in the Pavlovian conditioning research whereby a stimulus creates a particular response.Through the repetitive pairing of two things, the brain begins to see them as one. This mental exercise of association creates a higher engagement with the target language and deepens students understanding and retention. This methodology provides an environment where language acquisition can continue to strengthen, and the joy of learning is palpable.
BCD students also benefit from cross-curricular opportunities in world language as faculty works closely with the classroom teachers to keep students engaged through familiarity. If a preschool classroom has a veterinary center set up with stuffed and bandaged puppies, the world languages classes support that theme by teaching relevant French or Spanish words and with a simple book in the target language about a dog who went to the vet. This adds more vocabulary to their play center and provides the opportunity for the students to practice what they learn even after the language class is over. Larger themes are also incorporated in the world languages classrooms such as science lessons about plants in Kindergarten or the classroom market of 3rd grade. Bringing in concepts from other disciplines helps to further anchor the students learning in the world language classroom by connecting what they are learning in a way that is relevant and interesting.
It is said that learning a second language also prepares children to be expert problem solvers
and creative thinkers because their brains experience a constant workout from a young age as they try to sort out which language to speak and when (https://www.ertheo.com/blog/en/learning-a-second-language/#learnfast). Researchers have found that in addition to enhanced problem-solving skills, bilingual children are better at planning, concentrating, and multi-tasking. And, they score higher on standardized tests. By teaching your child a second language at a young age, you are setting them up for success.