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Learning a language

Consider pozajmljivanje.

A grown-up, raised to speak English, would struggle to learn a Serbo-Croatian word like that, would trip over the consonants and strain to commit its unfamiliar sounds to memory. A grown-up would think of pozajmljivanje as vocabulary.A 2-year-old, on the other hand, would learn it in the same exploratory, playful way that he learned to walk.

Children's brains are different from grown-up brains. They're built, actually, for learning language. Children's brains, many linguists believe, contain a "language acquisition device." Although no one has actually ever located it among the brain's twists and folds, linguists believe that the device exists, and that it shrivels up by the time a child reaches puberty.

And yet puberty is exactly when most American students begin studying a foreign language.

In Utah, only a handful of elementary schools teach a foreign language during school hours. A few offer before or after school language programs. Only one district - Alpine in Utah County - offers an "immersion program" that exposes children to a foreign language several hours a day.

"The state of Utah very often brags about what marvelous foreign language resources we have in this state," Brigham Young University Spanish professor James Taylor notes. "Unfortunately, this is not the result of our educational system."

By the time a child has become a teenager, after the "language acquisition device" shrivels up, he apparently uses a different part of the brain to learn a new language, explains Thomas Mathewscq, professor of Spanish at Weber State University. "For adolescents and teenagers, learning a language probably is the same cognitive process as learning algebra or history. It's mental work. But for children it's not mental work."

Of course, adults can still become proficient in a language. But they rarely will learn to speak that language truly as a native would - with the proper pronunciation and cadence, Mathews says.

Children who grow up in a bilingual household, hearing and speaking two mother tongues from the time they are infants, do the best, he says. They become what linguists call a "primary bilingual." The next best situation might be an immersion school program.

At Deanna Taylor's second-grade class at Windsor Elementary in Orem, children study math, spelling and reading in Spanish and, in fact, hear Spanish most of the day. Only science, music and art are taught in English.

"Prohibido hablar ingles" warns a sign at the front of the room. When Taylor herself slips into English to talk to a visiting reporter, the children gasp at their teacher's mistake.

Alpine's immersion program, 19 years old this year, is now in six schools. The school's students can choose whether or not to be in the program and can switch to an all-English classroom if they aren't happy with it.

When the immersion students move to junior high, they're ready for second- or third-year Spanish. By ninth grade, Taylor says, they're ready to take the Advanced Placement test.

But their skills extend beyond Spanish, says Dennis Duffy, a former Spanish-immersion teacher who is now director of grades K-6 in the Alpine district. Although in the second grades they generally do slightly worse on the Stanford Achievement Test than their English-only counterparts - because their English vocabulary and reading skills are weaker - by third grade they've caught up and by fifth grade quite often they have pulled ahead.

Newman Elementary in the Salt Lake District had an immersion program for five years ending in 1990. It was discontinued due to a high turnover rate of students at Newman making it difficult to continue the program from year to year.

Mathews chalks it up to the increased "cognitive flexibility" that comes from learning a second language early in life. "You don't necessarily become more intelligent, but a child who grows up with two languages has a point of view on the world that a monolingual doesn't have."

It has something to do with an increased ability to understand abstractions, he says, an understanding that the word for chair, for example, is just one of many labels that could stand for that thing you sit on. Such an understanding can carry over to disciplines such as mathematics.

Private schools typically do a better job of introducing foreign languages to children. Rowland Hall-St. Mark's, for example, teaches third-graders Spanish, then changes to French in fourth, German in fifth and Latin in sixth.

Although the students don't become fluent, they do at least get an introduction to several languages as well to several cultures, says Sue Olsen, chairwoman of the school's foreign language department.

A few public elementary schools offer before or after school language programs. "They're hit and miss, depending on pressure from parents," said Joan Patterson, foreign language specialist with the Utah State Office of Education.

At Oakridge Elementary in the Granite School District, parents pay for Spanish, German and French instruction before school, taught by a para-professional.

Kati Burningham, Granite foreign language specialist, says she would like to see foreign language taught in all the district's schools, during school time, but knows it probably won't happen any time soon.

A proper program would require adequately trained teachers - "adequately trained is the triple underline there," said Burningham, and that, of course, would require money. It would also mean that children would then spend less time on some other subject.

The Davis School District has taken the bold step this year of launching a pilot program that teaches Spanish to third-graders at East Layton Elementary. The plan is to teach Spanish to those same students as they move on to fourth, fifth and sixth grades.

The students receive 30 minutes of language instruction a day. "I wanted 45, but I had to be realistic," said Anabel Pinero, supervisor of foreign languages for the district.

Thirty minutes a day, she knows, is better than 30 a week. It's not just a few songs and a few vocabulary words but an approach that tries to teach the language in both a "physical" and a "natural way," she says. If a child learns a phrase such as "walk to the door," for example, he might get up and actually walk to the door as he hears or says it. He would hopefully learn the language in the same sort of context that a baby learns his mother tongue.

Only three states in the nation - Arizona, Louisiana and North Carolina -mandate foreign language instruction at the elementary school level. Arizona's mandate comes with no state funding.

If he had his way, Utah Superintendent of Public Instruction Scott W. Bean says, he'd have every child in the state, starting in the third grade, learn a foreign language - or as he calls it, an "international language."

"We are involved in a world commercial environment in which competitiveness will depend to some degree upon our ability to communicate with people having different languages," Bean said.

He favors Spanish as the required second language and would like to see all Utah students add a third language before they graduate from high school.

Bean knows that's how they do it in many other countries. In fact, his director of curriculum, Bonnie Morgan, returned recently from a trip to Lithuania.

What Morgan found were classrooms without heat and hardly any books. But all 10-year-olds were learning English. By the time Lithuanian students graduate from high school, Morgan says, they know how to speak not just one foreign language but three or four.

By the way, pozajmljivanje is pronounced po-zham-iyi-vanya, and is Serbo-Croatian for borrowing or lending.



Foreign languages

Percent of total number of Utah students studying each language.

... S C H O O L Y E A R

... Grades 7-12 High School

... 1969-70 1996-97

Spanish 36.5% 55.7%

French 34.7% 18.0%

German 23.5% 14.7%

Other* 5.3% 11.6%


American Sign Language 6.8%

Japanese 2.7%

Russian 1.4%

Other **.7%

Total 11.6%

*Chinese, Latin, Navajo, Ute