2011-01-26 / Family

Other languages aren’t foreign to elementary-school kids

By Laura Peters

Jian Ru Yang teaches Mandarin Chinese to third graders at O.B. Gates Elementary School. 
Lisa Billings/Chesterfield Observer Jian Ru Yang teaches Mandarin Chinese to third graders at O.B. Gates Elementary School. Lisa Billings/Chesterfield Observer Chesterfield County Public Schools is known for its extras, like high-school specialty centers and preschool programming for at-risk kids. But those extras cost money, and one of them – the world language initiative at elementary schools – has fallen victim to recent budget cuts.

Thirteen of the county’s 38 elementary schools currently offer foreign language – Mandarin Chinese, Spanish or French – as a 45-minute class once a week, much like art, physical education, music and library time.

CCPS planned to eventually teach foreign language at all elementary schools, but staffing cuts required the school system to refocus its priorities. The initiative is on hold until the economy – and funding levels for education – rebound.

Robious Elementary was the first elementary school in the county to offer a foreign language to its students eight years ago. Students are still taking French classes there.

“I think it’s important for children to realize that we live in a global economy. We all need to respect and appreciate other languages and cultures,” said Anne O’Toole, Robious’ principal. “I think that we have a lot of information that says that young children pick up a foreign language at greater ease than children after the age of 10. We’ve seen that here.”

Still, that enrichment comes with a cost since the program requires the hiring of foreign-language teachers.

“We were moving along, but things kind of came to a halt,” said O’Toole.

Karen Williams, a fifth-grade teacher at Robious, is a fan of the foreign language initiative.

“When they teach the foreign language, they’re not just teaching the language, but they’re teaching the culture as well. I think that teaching the culture will help the children with acceptance and learning about diversity. I really think this will transfer to their adult life,” Williams says. “I look at my students who are living in the age of communication, and I think that as adults they are going to be more global. I think that introduction to foreign language at an early age will be very beneficial in their lives.”

“Our program is content-related, so instead of just learning numbers, they’re learning the value of what five or 10 is. The idea that five is a universal concept…it’s a revelation [for students]. They don’t understand that the values stay the same no matter what the name is,” explained Linda Szwabowski, CCPS’ world language specialist. “That helps them with their upper-level thinking skills, it helps them make connections and helps them put perspectives on the world.”

Everything the students cover in their world language class is tied back into what they are learning in their core classes and is related to the state’s SOL tests.

CCPS is also in the process of revising the middle and high school foreign language curriculum, due to the introduction of foreign language at the elementary-school level.

“I think students absolutely love it! I wish there was a way that we could offer it twice a week,” O’Toole said. “I think we would see greater mileage if we were able to have it twice a week, but we haven’t figured a way without cutting something else that needs to be taught.”

Elementary schools currently offering world language


Mandarin Chinese
Watkins and Gates

Alberta Smith, Bellwood, Elizabeth Scott,
Grange Hall, Harrowgate, Marguerite
Christian, Salem Church, Weaver, Wells
and Winterpock

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