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A Cure for Monolingualism

Elementary-level foreign language instruction helps create global citizens.

Globalization has led to unprecedented interest in expanding foreign language instruction in U.S. schools, particularly at grade levels where traditionally it has not been an option. Languages that previously have been rarely taught, such as Chinese, are frequently the choice of new programs at every level in the K12 range. As No Child Left Behind has become a familiar refrain in our schools, few have noticed that the United States is already far behind the rest of the world in preparing our students for their responsibilities as global citizens. In fact, bilingualism and multilingualism are more the norm than the exception throughout the rest of the world. Policies in the European Union promote plurilingualism—high levels of proficiency in at least two languages and skills “as needed” in additional languages. Most importantly, plurilingualism embeds intercultural competencies as well as an awareness of the role of language in society. Although globalization may be evolving as a major impetus in the United States at the moment, there are compelling reasons for foreign language study beyond the world marketplace and political arena. An increasingly diverse society within the United States requires all students to know how to communicate across the permeable linguistic and cultural borders of our communities. More than ever, areas that have previously not felt the impact of a growing population of recent and not-so-recent immigrants are learning the importance of a harmonious and civil society based on mutual understanding.

But even if students never have a cross-linguistic, cross-cultural encounter, there are cognitive and academic benefits to language study. Research studies have noted the cognitive correlations of early bilingualism; studies of early foreign language learning have shown that students may outperform comparison groups on measures of reading and math.

The least expensive model, which ironically results in the highest level of language proficiency, is immersion.

As schools consider expanding their language offerings, a common core of questions frequently arises about introducing foreign languages, especially at the elementary level.

How do we get started?

Administrators need to start with the end in mind. The first steps require clarity about who wants foreign languages in the early grades, and for what reasons. Some parents, for example, want their children to leave the elementary grades fluent in another language, while others simply hope for a high quality experience that exposes children to other languages and cultures. District administrators and staff need to determine not only the purpose of the program, but also need to gauge the level of commitment in their district to adequately supporting the program in both the short and long term. Most importantly, administrators will need to decide the amount of funding that will be made available.


What program models could be considered in elementary schools?

What level of language proficiency do you expect students to achieve? And, what resources, both financial and human, are available to commit to the program? The major differences among program models relate to student outcomes, which directly correlate with the amount of time the students spent in language learning, and the cost to the district.

The least expensive model, which ironically results in the highest level of language proficiency, is an immersion program, where students spend at least one-half of the school day learning the school curriculum through the target language. Immersion students, particularly those who spend more than 50 percent of the school day in the target language, have native-like comprehension skills and are quite fluent by the end of the elementary grades.

A popular immersion approach is dual language immersion, in which half the class is learning a foreign language while the other half is learning English. For students who already speak English, no program of foreign language instruction in a school setting surpasses immersion for the level of language proficiency attained. For students learning English, recent studies have shown that an extended period of instruction in their home language is a powerful means of developing academic proficiency and English over time. These studies have clearly demonstrated that English Language Learners are more successful in learning English and academics in dual language programs than in any other type of approach.

English Language Learners are more successful in learning English and academics in dual language programs than in any other type of approach.

In immersion programs, the classroom teacher is the language teacher, so no additional staff is required, making the program far less costly. While most immersion programs in the United States offer Spanish, there are numerous programs in other languages, including non-alphabetic languages such as Chinese and Korean.


Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES) is an umbrella term for pullout-type programs in which students have a language class for a designated number of minutes per week. While the number of class meetings and minutes per meeting vary substantially, most experts recommend that students receive no less than 75 minutes per week in three class sessions. FLES students make progress toward proficiency over the years and demonstrate significantly higher performance on AP language exams than do non-FLES students. By the end of a K5 sequence, most FLES students can understand the target language well; they can produce phrases and sometimes sentences on familiar topics.

FLES programs are usually taught by someone other than the regular classroom teacher, such as an itinerant language teacher. Some districts are using video-based instruction with paraprofessionals providing face-to-face instruction twice weekly. For example, the state of Wyoming is using Salsa, a series developed by Georgia Public Broadcasting, and has developed extensive support materials that are publicly accessible on Wyoming’s Web site ( and for sixth grade materials). Although textbooks are not commonly used in FLES, teachers often make their own materials, so time and funding for making materials should be considered when preparing budgets.

Some FLES classes meet as infrequently as once a week for 30 minutes, and others for up to 60 minutes per week. These programs can help students gain exposure to another language and some cultural understanding, but it is unlikely that usable levels of language proficiency can be developed under such time constraints. Many foreign language educators call these programs FLEX, for Foreign Language Experience (or Exploratory).

FLEX programs can be useful as an introduction to a more intensive language experience, but none of the research that points to the benefits of early language learning was conducted on FLEX models.


Won’t taking time out for foreign language instruction negatively impact our student performance?

The research says no.

Given the accountability considerations of NCLB, it is understandable that questions would arise about student performance when time is taken out of the school day for foreign language learning. FLES programs require at least 75 minutes per week, which can seem like a big chunk to teachers who already feel time constraints in meeting expectations for curriculum and student performance. Studies have shown that FLES students demonstrate no detrimental effects on academic performance when compared with non-FLES counterparts. In fact, some studies have shown that FLES students outperform peers even when they spend less time on reading, language arts, or math than non-FLES students.

The research on immersion is extensive, spanning over 40 years of data collection on hundreds of thousands of students, with consistent results. Studies have shown that immersion students—even when learning to read first in a foreign language, and even when learning all math or science in a new language—do as well as and sometimes better than monolingually educated students.

Where can we find qualified teachers?

Not surprisingly, the widespread interest in introducing new foreign language programs in the elementary grades has bumped against a shortage of qualified teachers. Schools are often surprised to find qualified personnel right at home as they discover teachers within the district have the language skills needed for the program. Some states and districts are working with foreign governments and with private agencies in the United States to bring qualified teachers from abroad, as federal initiatives and colleges work to increase the supply of domestic teachers. (Contact your state foreign language supervisor to see if your state has an agreement with foreign governments.) Technology mediated instruction is also gaining attention as a complement to human resources. As noted earlier, the state of Wyoming is using the Salsa materials extensively, South Carolina has developed a Spanish program for students beginning at grade 3, and Ohio is working with Sesame Workshop to develop an introductory Chinese program for preschoolers.

What will the program cost?

Different programs require different resources. Start-up costs for both FLES and immersion will include professional development, instructional materials and planning. Ongoing costs differ, as FLES programs are likely to require additional staffing, whereas immersion programs can be staffed within the school’s pupil- teacher allocation.

What should we consider as students are ready to move on to middle and high school?

Whether a school chooses immersion or FLES, programs require serious attention to articulation from elementary through secondary schooling if any real long-term proficiency is to be acquired and retained. The middle school language program has to provide a seamless continuation of the progress made in the elementary grades if the purpose of offering elementary instruction is to develop language proficiency. It makes little sense to expect students to tread water as they move to middle school. It is counterproductive to have a three-year hiatus in middle school, be mixed with students in a beginning language class who have not had foreign language before, or otherwise not continue to make progress.

Often articulation involves a major departure from the existing foreign language curriculum, requiring participation of the middle school and elementary staff in designing an appropriate continuation curriculum. For middle schools that have not previously offered the option of foreign languages to sixth-graders or even seventh- or eighth-graders, changes in policy and scheduling practices will also pose challenges.

In his widely acclaimed book The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman suggests that today’s students need to be prepared to be the best global citizens possible. Clearly, global citizenry requires the language and cultural skills to interact effectively across language and cultural borders. The best time to start is now, and with our very youngest students.

Myriam Met is a former director of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland, where her work focused primarily on K12 foreign language policy and planning. At present, she is an independent consultant, assisting agencies and schools in planning, implementing, enhancing and evaluating second/foreign language programs. Contact her at regarding her new publication on using backward design to plan or improve foreign language progress. For references used in this article go to