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Second Language Acquisition

Second language learning should begin at the elementary level.

As we enter the 21st century, we recognize the need for our citizens to communicate in a culturally diverse community, nation, world. Language is the key to that communication.  To understand and use another language in a cultural context is to internalize diversity. The elementary school is the ideal setting for initiating the study of world languages.1

(1Connecticut COLT has adopted the terminology of world language in place of foreign language in accordance with the State Board of Education's publication: World Languages-A Guide to K-12 Program Development, 1999.)

All children will have the opportunity to have an extended sequence of a second language beginning in kindergarten.

Living in a culturally changing society and within the larger global community, students need to become proficient in other languages and to develop an awareness and understanding of other cultures.

  • Recent brain research and the research in second language acquisition indicate that young children have a natural aptitude for language development.
  • The young student is attudinally more receptive to learning about other cultures and people and is developmentally at a critical period for language acquisition.
  • The organization of the elementary school curriculum lends itself to the study of a second language as an integrated part of the curriculum.
  • The learning and strengthening of basic skills, curriculum integration, enhanced student creativity, improved self-concept, and future career awareness are outcomes of elementary school second language programs.

The National Commission on Excellence in Education has maintained that achieving proficiency in a second world language takes from four to six years of study, and is best begun in the elementary grades.

Recent research on the developing brain supports the initiation of learning a second language during the early elementary school years in order to take advantage of the natural processes of language acquisition during this "critical period of development."2

Helena Curtain and Carol Pesola (1994), Gladys Lipton (1992) and Myriam Met (1998), all widely known educators in the field of language acquisition in the elementary school, have summarized a variety of research findings in their books.  They provide significant rationale for early world language learning, including the following:

  1. Children have the ability to learn and excel in the pronunciation of foreign language (Krashen, et al. 1982).
  2. Participation in early foreign language learning shows no sacrifice of basic skills, but rather shows positive results in areas of standardized testing.  English, Language Arts, Math and SAT scores were shown to have significant gains.  (Rafferty, 1986; Garfinkel & Tabor, 1991; Armstrong & Rogers, 1997).
  3. Children who had studied a foreign language show greater cognitive development in such areas as mental flexibility, creativity, divergent thinking, and higher order thinking skills. (Landry, 1974; Hakuta, 1990)
  4. Foreign language study has shown to enhance listening skills, memory and a greater understanding of one's own language. (Lapkin, et al., 1990)
  5. Children studying a foreign language have an improved self-concept and sense of achievement in school. (Holobrow, et al., 1987; Caine & Caine, 1997)
  6. Children who have studied a foreign language develop a sense of cultural pluralism, openness and appreciation of other cultures.  (Pesola, 1991; Curtain, 1993; Met, 1995)

(2Research notes:  Language Learning and the Developing Brain. Learning Languages,Winter, 1996, p.17.)

Connecticut has seventy school districts that offer a second language below grade 7, including twenty-one starting before grade 4.  Each year more school districts make inquiries of the Connecticut State Department of Education regarding the process for developing and implementing a second language program at the elementary school level.  The Connecticut Parent Teacher Association reaffirmed its Foreign Language Education Resolution in 1993.  This resolution states that "the Connecticut PTA promotes the concept of establishing programs in foreign language in the elementary schools."  In 1999, the State Board of Education in Connecticut published A Guide to K-12 Program Development in World Languages to help districts in the development of world language programs.  A project called Connections (Lyons, M.D.; Peel, E. S.) is also being developed to show how world language curricula support and reinforce the Connecticut K-8 Content Standards and the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) objectives for language arts and mathematics.

On the national level, in 1990, the National Council of State Supervisors of Foreign Languages (NCSSFL) and the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) issued a joint statement in support of Foreign Languages in the Elementary Schools (FLES) programs.  In 1996, the Goals 2000 initiative resulted in the development of student standards for foreign language learning for all students in grades K-12 (National Standards, 1996).  The U.S. Department of Education also offers grants such as the Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) to help states and local agencies establish and improve foreign language instruction in elementary and secondary schools.  Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, North Carolina and Oklahoma have some form of state requirements for world language instruction at the elementary school level.  The Georgia PTA has passed a resolution promoting and endorsing world language programs in the elementary school.

The Board of Directors of the Connecticut Council of Language Teachers (CT COLT) recognizes the support of the Commissioner of the Connecticut State Department of Education.  The Board recommends that the leaders at the district level:

  • Provide all student with the opportunity to study a second language in the elementary school.
  • Establish a well articulated, extended sequence of language instruction K-12 that is optimal for learning and teaching.
  • Staff schools with teachers certified as FLES educators to teach world languages below grade four.

The recommendations contained herein allow individual districts to design and implement programs that reflect local needs and constraints.


Andrade, C., Kretschmer, R.,Jr., & Kretschmer, L. (1989) Two languages for all children. Expanding to low achievers & the handicapped. In K.E. Muller (Ed.). Languages in elementary schools. International Education Series, New York: The American Forum for Global Education.

Armstrong, P. & Rogers, J. (1997) Basic skills revisited:  The effects of foreign language instruction on reading, math, and language arts. Learning Languages, 2 (3): 20-31/

Boston, C., ed. (1998)  The ERIC Revies: K-12 Foreign Language Education 6 (1)

Caine, R.N. & Caine, G. (1997) Education on the edge of possibility.  Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Connections is a project being developed by Mary Donna Lyons, Enfield High School, Enfield, CT & Emily S. Peel of Wethersfield High School, Wethersfield, CT.

Curtain, H., (1993) An early start. Washington, D.C.:Center for Applied Linguistics.

Curtain, H., and Pesola, C.A. (1994) Languages and Children: Making the Match. Second Edition. White Plains, N.Y.: Longman.

Gardner, D. (1983) A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform.  Washington, D.C.; U.S. Department of Education.

Garfinkel, A., & Tabor, K. (1991) Elementary school foreign languages and English reading achievement: a new view of the relationship. Foreign Language Annals,  24 (5).

Hakuta, K. (1990) Language and cognition in bilingual children. In A. Padilla, H. Fairchild & C. Valadez (Eds.) Bilingual education: Issues and strategies.  Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications

Holobow, N., Genesee, F., Lambert, N.E., Met, M., and Gasright, J. (1987) Effectiveness of partial French immersion for children from different social class & ethnic backgrounds.  Applied Psycholinguistics 8, (2): 137-152.

Krashen, S. (1983) Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Lach, J. Spring/Summer (1997). Cultivating the mind. Newsweek Special Issue: Your Child - From Birth to Three: 38-39.

Landry, R. (1974) A comparison of second language learners and monolinguals on divergent thinking tasks at the elementary school level.  Modern Language Journal, 59 (1-2), 10-15.

Lapkin, S., Swain, M., & Shapson, S. (1990) French immersion research agenda for the '90's. Canadian Modern Language Review, 46 (4): 638-74.

Lipton, G. (1992) Practical Handbook to Elementary Foreign Language Programs. Lincolnwood, IL. NTC Publishing Group.

Met, M. (1998) Critical Issues in Early Second Language Learning: Building for Our Children's Future. Reading, MA: Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley.

Met, M. (1991) Learning language through content: Learning content through language. Foreign Language Annals,  24 (5): 281-95

Nash, J.M. February 3, 1997. Fertile Minds. Time, 149 (5): 49-56.

Pesola, C.A. (1991) Culture in the elementary school foreign language classroom.  Foreign Language Annals,  24 (4): 281-95.

Rafferty, E. (1986) Second language study and basic skills in Louisiana. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana Department of Education.

Research Notes: (1996) Language learning and the developing brain. Learning Languages,  Winter: 17.

State of Connecticut. (1999) World Languages - A Guide to K-12 Program Development.  Hartford, CT: State Board of Education.


Elizabeth K. Lapman
President, CT COLT
Lewis S. Mills High School
26 Lyon Road
Burlington, CT 06013

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The Connecticut Council of Language Teachers (CT COLT) promotes, advocates for and fosters the teaching and learning of World Languages and Cultures. We support, guide and connect educators, students, policy makers and the public through professional development, scholarship and collaborative initiatives.

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