With sheets of paper outlining the various Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe, the five-year-old Kindergarten students stare with wide eyes up at their teacher, Lydia Izquierdo, and listen as she speaks slowly and clearly in Spanish to them in almost a melodic tone.
Some shy, others enthusiastic, they look up and repeat how to say their names in Spanish and how to respond to “como estas,” the basic Spanish phrase for “How are you.”
The prospect that these students should learn the basics of speaking and understanding a foreign language at a very young age was hardly unpopular with parents at Crossfield Elementary this year. More than 100 signed their children up for the Foreign Language Experience (FLEX) program, making Crossfield the county school with the highest number of participants.
According to Monique Silverio, PTO representative of the FLEX program, parents want to give their kids every advantage in a country with a growing need for Spanish-speaking adults.
“I think that parents are really looking ahead at the future and at global competition, and a big part of that for their children is being able to speak a foreign language,” said Silverio, whose 7-year-old daughter Emily has been enrolled in the FLEX program at Crossfield Elementary since her first year at the school. “The bottom line is that parents want to give their kids a leg up.”
WHEN IT COMES TO foreign language, the earlier that a child can start, the better, according to Izquierdo, who has been teaching Spanish to Crossfield children for the last three years.
“At this age, [the students] learn much more easily … and can learn things like pronunciation and accent much easier,” she said. “When it comes to foreign languages, children’s brains are like sponges … they can absorb a language much easier than most adults can.”
Her own personal experiences with learning a second language have driven the importance of early exposure to a foreign language in attaining fluency, Silverio said. While fluent in Dutch, having learned to speak it at a very young age, Silverio said that she found it much more difficult to pick up French when she was a teenager, as she had previously had very little exposure to the language earlier in her life.
“You can’t process a language and pick it up in the same way that you can when you are older; it becomes so much harder to break down some of those walls that you build up over time,” she said. “It becomes so key to students to get that early experience with the language, to make it that much easier to understand and speak when they get older.”
IT HAS BEEN NO surprise to Silverio or any of the other teachers of the program that Spanish classes have produced such as strong interest in parents.
The main reason for this, Silverio said, is practicality.
“We’re seeing more and more Spanish being spoken in our society these days, and I think that parents are starting to realize its importance not just now, but in the future of the country and really the world,” she said. “Parents are seeing that skills in Spanish, especially here in the Metropolitan [Washington, D.C.] area, can give their children that much more of an advantage when it comes to growing markets and segments of society.”
Rosemary Emery, a FLEX program Spanish teacher, has noticed the desire of American-born parents to use their children as translators to speak with their housekeepers.
“Where you used to have the Hispanic immigrants using their children to translate English for them, now we’re seeing the American children translating Spanish to their parents,” Emery said. “It’s a skill that is entirely in demand and I’m seeing a strong desire, in children and their parents, to learn Spanish.”
For 7-year-old second grade Crossfield Elementary student Amy Luttges, who has been in the FLEX program since Kindergarten, she looks forward to making new friends who speak Spanish and using her language skills when she visits her cousins in Spain.
Silverio’s 7-year-old, second grade daughter Emily has already discovered one of the great advantages of speaking a foreign language fluently — exclusivity.
“If I ever meet somebody and they only speak Spanish, I can have the chance to talk with them when other people might not be able to,” she said. “And no one will know what we are saying unless they speak Spanish too.”
DESPITE THE EARLY efforts at foreign language training, the FLEX program does not attempt to develop immediate fluency amongst its students, Silverio said.
The hour-long classes, which are offered to all Crossfield students once or twice a week, depending on grade level, are designed to expose the children first to the basics of conversation, grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary, so that the groundwork principles of the language are set, she added. The goal then would become a greater success rate for fluency and fluidity in speaking through more advanced foreign language courses in middle school and high school.
“When you’re looking at these students getting a chance to hear and speak the language on a regular basis as young as five [years-old], you’re really giving them an advantage for later,” Silverio said. “With a world and an educational climate that is increasingly competitive, those advantages can make so much of a difference.”