After a month in Israel this summer, David Gevarter arrived home with a suitcase full of laundry and a much better grasp of Hebrew.
“I learned a lot of words that I wouldn’t have retained had I just read them from a dictionary — words that came in handy reading the signs,” says Gervarter, a rising junior at Catonsville High School, who also studies Spanish.
What David and his fellow teens on the Baltimore Zionist District (BZD) summer trip learned was something foreign-language instructors have known for a long time: Language immersion is a great learning tool.
“It’s almost like seeing a new student,” says John McLucas, a professor of modern language at Towson University, who says that just a couple of weeks visiting a non-English-speaking country can make a huge difference in language ability.
Historically, foreign-language programs have been ahead of the curve in adopting new ideas. These days, sweating over grammar has given way to more dynamic instruction with teachers urging their students to start speaking from the get-go.
“What we know from research is you need to start using the language to communicate, and you only get better if you take risks; you use it, and you make mistakes, because that’s how you become more accurate in your communications,” says Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “So the old myth that you have to know all these grammar rules before you can produce the language is exactly that, a myth. You only become more accurate in your language
use by speaking the language. That’s what we’re trying to get language teachers to focus on.”
In the modern classroom, teachers may live-stream foreign TV shows or have the students Skype with kids from other countries. And there are innumerable opportunities for service-learning projects with non-English speakers and to travel worldwide.
Sometimes, trends in language education follow world events. McLucas says Russian is not as strong as it was 30 years ago, while Chinese, Arabic and Hebrew are on the upswing.
While Abbott laments that public-school foreign-language instruction nationwide often doesn’t start until as late as ninth or 10th grade, there are numerous exceptions.
Many preschools offer foreign-language instruction, although McLucas notes that kids tend to lose it if they don’t continue in elementary school.
Baltimore’s day schools put a strong emphasis on Hebrew, and Baltimore County’s public schools offer several language-immersion experiences, including a French program at the Wellwood International School and at Sudbrook Middle Magnet School.
Zack Crosby of Towson completed both programs. (At Sudbrook he also took Japanese as an elective; he’s now thinking of studying Arabic.) At the same time, he also tackled Hebrew.
“Now a rising junior at St. Paul’s School, Zack is fluent in French. Traveling on the BZD trip this summer, he got the chance to use his Hebrew.
Zack’s mom, Lynn, believes there’s no downside to learning a language.
“American children really must have another language; we’re a global society,” she says.
Is Zack an anomaly? The answer is no; most children, say the experts, can learn multiple languages.
“Parents who give kids the opportunity to learn Hebrew at an early age allow them to develop that ability [to learn to speak] in two languages.” says Abbott. “Then the third and the fourth [languages] come even easier.”
Traveling through Israel this summer, David says it was cool when his Israeli guide would teach him a new word and he would understand it in a later conversation.
While English remains the official language in many worldwide business transactions, multi-lingual young people are highly marketable in the global economy.
Abbott says when she was teaching, she had a poster in her classroom listing the different careers that made use of foreign languages. Today, of course, it’s helpful in just about any career.
Helping Your Student Master A Different Language
Even if you don’t speak the language, you can still help your kids learn. Marty Abbott says the family can go to a restaurant where the child can use the language to place an order, or visit a museum that showcases a particular culture, or even take a trip to a country where the language is spoken.
Should parents steer their kids toward a particular language? John McLucas says parents can provide an adult perspective on the value of one language over another, but if a child really has a passion for a particular language, let him/her go for it.
When evaluating a language program for your kids, Abbott urges you to look for teachers who use the language in class, with the students practicing real-world communication.
Amy Landsman is a local freelance writer.