The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

Start them young

Julia Dubnoff explores the new decisions made by LMSD on teaching language and offers their opinion on how the program should be taught.

I remember elementary school Spanish class quite vividly. We learned the days of the week and “cómo estás,” and sang about seahorses in our Spanish play. I had a lot of fun. But I also remember going over to my friend’s house after school, hearing her speak Spanish to her mother, and not understanding a word. Merion Elementary School’s Spanish program was largely ineffective. And this year, when fifth graders were moved up to middle school, it was eliminated altogether; Foreign Language in Elementary Schools (FLES) was cut throughout LMSD.

LMSD was able to recognize that students weren’t learning enough from the FLES classes. Despite this, they failed to rectify the issue. Instead of throwing out the program entirely, LMSD should’ve dedicated the resources to investigating and improving language education, ensuring that young students could develop their skills prior to middle school. 

The theory behind the change is well-intended. According to LM Spanish teacher and Language Fair organizer Allison Mellet, language education has been reallocated and teachers moved across schools, enabling “30 minutes of daily language class starting in fifth grade and again in sixth grade” and then “45 minutes in seventh and eighth grades.” While seventh and eighth graders have had this class time daily, fifth and sixth graders had previously been in language classes once every three or four days.  Regardless, daily language study in middle school does not compensate for the time that these students have lost since having classes cut earlier on in their schooling. 

It’s no secret in the linguistic world that children possess the ability to absorb a language, far easier than adults, due to a cognitive advantage in a still-developing brain. It’s been demonstrated in studies since the sixties, reaffirmed again and again in numerous experiments. As discovered by an MIT study in 2018, utilizing a database of nearly 670,000 respondents, beginning language studies prior to the age of ten is crucial for a student to understand and utilize the language like a native speaker. Under the new LMSD program, students are no younger than ten years old when beginning their studies.This threatens a student’s ability to master a second language. While it is undoubtedly beneficial that fifth and sixth graders now have more consistent study, the lack of education until then puts these students at a disadvantage to learn a new language fluently.

Even with the minimal FLES education I received at Merion, I do feel like those years were useful for me: having grown up exposed to Spanish phonetics, forming the sounds of the language comes far more naturally. In comparison, with languages that I’ve begun studying more recently, such as Dutch and Hebrew, there are certain phonemes that my throat cannot wrap itself around regardless of hours of practice. 

Furthermore, even for students without a vested interest in maintaining foreign language skills, FLES has undeniable benefits. Various studies by the American Council for Teaching Foreign Languages (ACTFL) have shown that language education in younger grades especially boosted students’ performance in English language arts and math. LMSD teachers have taught us the cognitive benefits of learning languages for years—why would we deprive our young students of those benefits?

The new system both robs students of the ability to learn proper pronunciation and process the language at a potential, eventual native or near-native level and denies them increased cognitive development by eliminating FLES from LMSD schools. Rather than replacing FLES with more time in middle school, the district should focus its resources on expanding the elementary school language program. Such was affirmed by experiences of LMSD students who underwent primary school outside the district. Luke Shepard ’24, for example, has skipped ahead years of Spanish due to a thorough elementary school education. He claims, “The most influential factor in my ability to learn foreign languages was my immersive instruction at a younger age.” As a former Texas resident, Shepard grew up attending an international school that offered an hour a day of language instruction. “With my instruction in Spanish and experiences practicing with Spanish speakers in the area I lived,” he elaborated, “I was able to not only speak cohesively, but I began to form an accent while speaking the language”

What if, instead of limiting students’ ability to learn another language by disregarding FLES, the district expanded it? What if language learning was prioritized at a young age, so that students wouldn’t have to play catch-up later? If LMSD truly intended to teach its students another language, they would listen to the cognitive scientists and linguistic research, and find a way to reinstate elementary school instruction. 

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