Earlier is better when learning a second language

American students are disadvantaged in our increasingly globalized world. Teachers say it’s crucial to get them learning languages early.

| 26 Aug 2019 | 02:15

By Hanna Katherine Wickes

Learning a second language takes time, practice, and a whole lot of work. To become fluent takes perseverance. But to speak a second language with the ease of native — well, that takes timing.

We know the benefits of learning a second language: it improves cognitive skills, cultural awareness, and achievement in other disciplines. As a country, having a bilingual-educated nation helps globalize society and keep up with the rest of the world. In fact, one in five American jobs involve international trade. Yet, 90 percent of Americans don’t speak a second language. So why is the United States so far behind?

“We need to introduce language earlier on,” said Doug Crouse, a world language teacher at Sparta Middle School. “Kids’ brains are like sponges. If a second language is introduced earlier in their education, they can speak with the ease of a native by the time they’re adults.”

Research suggests that children should be introduced to a second language by the time they are 10 years old to have the same fluency as a native. But American students aren’t introduced to other languages until they’re about 12 years old. For comparison, European students start to learn a second – and, in some cases, a third -- language by the time they are around seven years old.

“We need to create programs where students have the opportunity to speak from an early age,” said Marta Werman, a world language teacher at Lounsberry Hollow.

“Children’s minds are so fertile and ready to learn.”

The introduction to a world language is just the start. The language must be taught properly and regularly. It’s hard for students to get a general understanding of a second language if they attend a class in it only once a week.

“The problem is that many schools spread their language classes too thin,” said Werman. “By the time you see your students again, they forget everything you already taught them.”

To address this problem, many school districts have started to install dual-immersion programs: students speak a language for the first half of the day, and a second language for the second part of the day.

“Dual-immersion programs are the only hope in allowing our students to become global citizens,” said Crouse. “It’s important for students not to just learn another world language, but to use that language to learn.”

A bill that would install these dual-immersion programs has stalled in New Jersey, but still has a lot of support behind it.

“It’s all about the budget of the school district,” said Werman. “It would be ideal to have a bilingual system, even if it’s only for one or two grades. We should really start in kindergarten or even preschool.”

Other states are further ahead in providing second-language education to younger grades.

“Hopefully we’ll catch up to other states, like Utah and Delaware, that are already installing it in their school districts, very soon,” said Crouse.