Teaching Foreign Languages in the Elementary School

This is a report of a panel discussion held at the Protestant Reformed Teacher’s Convention last October.

The subject of foreign language study in the elementary school has received much attention in the past few years. Many schools in our country have been putting such a program into practice. The reasons for studying a foreign language are many. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the world seems to be getting smaller all the time. Countries that used to take days and weeks to reach can now be reached in a matter of hours. With this growing proximity of nations comes a growing need of understanding between these nations. One important step toward better international relationships is the knowledge of one another’s language. The current trends and problems in business and trade as well as literature and art can be far better understood if one is able to read that country’s newspapers and periodicals.

Of course this is not the only reason for studying a foreign language. Study of a foreign language makes one more familiar with sentence order and the parts of speech. This familiarity often contributes to a richer use of one’s own language.

But when must this foreign language study begin? Tests have shown that the third grade is the best time to begin the study of a foreign language. At this time the child has a very absorbent mind and mimicry is natural for him. He is also very inquisitive at this age and will thus be eager to learn. Tests have shown that at this age and up to the age of twelve the child has a natural bilingual ability.

So we see reason for the study of foreign language not only, but also for this study in the elementary school. Foreign language study is mandatory for most high school students, especially those who plan to go on to college. The study of a language in the elementary school is a good foundation for this later study. If we compare the language study education of our country to that of Europe and Asia we will find that we are quite far behind. In Russia the children acquire a writing and speaking knowledge of English by the time they reach nine years of age.

The aural-oral method is cited as the best approach to language teaching at this age. This involves, not the memorization of vocabulary words and grammar rules, but rather the speaking of the teacher (oral) and the listening of the student (aural). This method can be carried out in various ways. The teacher can teach her class in song in the language which they are studying. There is much enjoyment in this activity and at the same time the children increase their vocabulary. Reading Scripture is also an effective way to increase the child’s vocabulary. When reading they are familiar with the English and there is little difficulty with translation. After a year or two of foreign language study the child is presented with flash cards bearing the words already established in his speaking vocabulary by the aural-oral method. Often the teacher merely converses with her pupils in the language she is teaching. Any approach may be used as long as it is kept in a pleasurable context.

There may also be questions as to which foreign language should be taught. Those recommended by individuals who have made a study of this subject are French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish and Dutch. These languages are chosen because of their prominence in the world today.

As to the question of who would learn these languages, there are two alternatives. They can either be compulsory for all or they can be taken only by those who wish to do so. A very workable plan would be a first year course which is compulsory; then only those who have done well during the first year may continue during the second year.

The only questions left are “Who will teach?” and “When do we start?” Of course the teacher is the key in any instruction and must be well qualified. The ideal set-up would be qualified classroom teachers, but this is not always possible. In a ‘college town’ like Grand Rapids it would not be difficult to find foreign students who would be eager to teach their native tongue and make some extra at the same time. There may also be qualified parents or friends of the school who would be interested in joining in this program. Of course such an addition would have to be worked out in conjunction with the school board, perhaps through the educational committee.

Don’t you think it’s worth looking into?

Originally Published in:

Vol. 19 No. 9 January 1959