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WORLD LANGUAGES

Buckley students are introduced to world languages as early as Pre-Kindergarten. Spanish and Mandarin teachers provide an exposure to their languages for one semester each in the context of songs and games. Our Kindergarten children continue to develop their listening, speaking, and comprehension skills in one of these two languages, which they study through the 8th grade. Students who began the study of French in Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten during the last two years have the option of continuing through the 8th grade. In addition, all 7th graders add the study of Latin to their program for their final two years at Buckley. This emphasis on other languages prepares our students extraordinarily well for secondary school and beyond.

Please enjoy this letter to parents, written by our headmaster, Dr. Jean-Marc Juhel, about the rationale and the wide-ranging benefits of studying a second language beginning at an early age.

Dear Parents,

When parents ask me which second language their children should learn, I typically answer that which language is less important than beginning at an early age when it can easily become second nature to them. Being proficient in any language other than one’s own has multiple benefits. It is a widely accepted fact that common global interests have relegated isolationism to a doctrine of the past. For today’s students, competency in one language other than English may not be sufficient to ensure that they will succeed in a competitive global economy. Proficiency in a widely spoken and commonly taught language is a highly marketable asset; but so is proficiency in less commonly taught languages, such as Farsi, Arabic, or Turkish.

US schools understand that it is no longer advisable to let students graduate from high school with no exposure to a second language. However, this reality has only taken hold at the secondary school level. According to a 2008 nationwide report from the Center for Applied Linguistics, only 15% of all elementary public schools offered second language instruction. In private schools, that number was more than three times higher (51%).

Buckley introduces world languages in Pre-K with the goal of preparing students to reach linguistic and cultural proficiency in a language other than English. The benefits of starting at an early age are well documented. Since for most schools immersion is not a practical option, long and continuous contact with the target language is an effective alternative approach. Learning a second language requires the ability to take risks, which proves easy in younger children whose innate curiosity, lack of inhibition, and enthusiasm for anything new make them ideal language learners. They are able to accept that two words (the one in English that they are familiar with and the one in another language) can sound different and yet have a similar meaning. They can often repeat that word with near native pronunciation.

Second language instruction is a central part of the education of Buckley students not only because of obvious linguistic and marketability benefits, but also for the cognitive, cultural, and intellectual values children hone. Learning a second language is as much a cognitive exercise as it is a linguistic one. The mental gymnastics of manipulating a different linguistic code provides exercise to the brain and transfers into other areas of learning including, ironically, better understanding one’s own native language. As I watch students being exposed to a second language and culture that challenge the comfort of their reality, I cannot help but notice the intellectual open-mindedness they develop. Finally, as language is the vehicle for culture, understanding a culture often starts with the understanding of its language. In any interaction with people from different countries, even if they can speak and understand English, knowledge of their cultural frame of reference and their language, no matter how rudimentary, is an asset.

Because English is understood by so many people around the world, US schools always run the risk of underestimating the importance of learning a second language. Yet, the benefits of early second language acquisition are countless. I recently asked students to think about the following question: “If the world were a village of 100, how many languages, and which ones, would you have to know to be able to speak the native language of at least 50 of the villagers?” A good starting point for schools would be to make sure that their graduates be linguistically and culturally proficient in at least one of them, other than English.

Dr. Jean-Marc Juhel

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