According to a popular biblical story, before mankind decided to build a tower that would reach all the way to heaven (the Tower of Babel), there was a single language, universally spoken and comprehended by all. As the story goes, mankind was punished for the hubris of building this tower by having their one universal language turned into dozens of different languages. The inability to communicate in each other’s languages resulted in mass confusion and the ultimate destruction of the tower.
Whether the story as a whole is fact or fiction is not the salient point to consider here: what is true is that today there are between five and six thousand different languages spoken around the world, and that the inability to communicate in each other’s languages can indeed cause mass confusion and, at a minimum, an erosion of goodwill between different cultures.
Being able to speak another person’s language is a critical skill, especially as increased travel opportunities, satellite programming, and international use of the internet have begun to create a truly global community. But when is the best time to begin learning a foreign language? Many experts would say the sooner the better, and in fact, there have been numerous studies and reports, some dating back to the 1960s, indicating that the ideal time to begin studying a foreign language is in elementary school.
There are many benefits to starting a foreign language at an elementary school level. Children in that age group who study a foreign language have been shown to have greater mental flexibility, creativity, divergent thinking skills, and higher-order thinking skills, as well as improved listening skills and memories. Some would say that these are benefits of studying a foreign language at any age, not just in elementary school-so why start that early if the same benefits can be gained just as well by starting in, say, junior high? Strictly from a logical point of view, beginning a foreign language earlier would allow for a longer sequence of instruction, increasing the likelihood that a child would achieve true proficiency in a language. In other words, if a child doesn’t start studying a language until freshman year, they may only have the opportunity to study a language for four years before graduating, and that is not always enough to ensure true proficiency. (Some experts maintain that a minimum of six to eight years of study is required before even approaching profiency.) If a child starts four years earlier, he or she has the opportunity to master the complex grammar structures and achieve true proficiency in a way that is simply not possible in a four-year program.
Jean Piaget, the renowned developmental psychologist, put forth some other arguments for beginning the study of a foreign language at an early age: for one thing, children, developmentally speaking, tend to be more open-minded in general in elementary school than they are at a later age. They are more interested in learning about the world around them and more enthusiastic about different cultures; this helps lead to a more positive, tolerant attitude, particularly toward the culture and country whose language they study.
Piaget also had a theory of cognitive development which supports this push for an early start. He felt that when a child is faced with an idea or an experience that does not fit into his or her realm of understanding, it becomes a catalyst for new thinking. In other words, as everything about a foreign language or culture does not, at first, fit into a child’s “realm of understanding”, the entire study of a foreign language serves as a catalyst for new thinking.
Back in the 1960s, the noted linguist, Noam Chomsky, put forth his own theory about the need for starting foreign language studies earlier, proposing the existence in the human brain of a “language acquisition device” which enabled humans to learn languages easily up to a certain age (usually linked with the onset of puberty). Once that age was reached, he theorized, language learning could still occur, but with significantly greater difficulty and much less likelihood of achieving a native level of fluency. Later studies built upon Chomsky’s theory, developing it into the “Critical Period Hypothesis”.
Linguists and researchers continue to debate the validity of these two theories, but regardless, there are clearly many benefits to beginning the study of a foreign language at an early age, and, although the U.S. does not mandate study of a foreign language, many other schools around the world do. In a study conducted by the Center for Applied Linguistics back in 2001, researchers found that many of the countries in the study had widespread or mandatory foreign language requirements for students by the age of eight; other countries introduced foreign language by the upper elementary grades at a minimum, and many offered, or even required, the study of a second foreign language as well. By contrast, the majority of U.S. students do not even begin studying a first foreign language until the age of fourteen.
There have been many reasons cited as to the gap between early and mandatory foreign language study in the U.S. and in other countries, ranging from limited funds, a lack of qualified teachers, even the need to shelve non-essential classes in favor of ramping up time spent in “critical” subjects such as mathematics, science, and literacy. No one disputes that those are critical subjects, but it would be a grievous mistake, in our ever-shrinking world, and at a time when we need so desperately to be able to communicate efficiently and fluently with the world around us, to think that foreign languages are no less critical subjects. Children will need math and science to gain the knowledge to build that tower, but without the ability to communicate with others of different tongues and cultures, they will never be able to construct it together-or, if they do, they may be doomed, like the men of Babel, to watch it fall because of an inability to speak each other’s languages.