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The Case for the Multilingual Classroom: Starting Early

By ILA Staff - May 10, 2016

The ability to speak multiple languages is a coveted skill in today’s economy. The goal is to create a learning environment that promotes language acquisition while making the curriculum accessible to everyone. For policymakers and educators worldwide, the question is how to foster that environment in an era of tight budgets, diverse priorities, and political sensitivities. 
Schools that truly embrace multilingualism report higher levels of community engagement and academic achievement across the board. If implemented poorly, though, such programs can further marginalize groups that aren’t proficient in the dominant language.
To stimulate fresh thinking on this critical topic, the International Literacy Association (ILA) recently convened a roundtable with a distinguished group of advocacy and policy experts in Washington, DC. In a wide-ranging conversation led by award-winning journalist Diane Brady, experts shared their thinking on the best practices and priorities for achieving true multilingual learning. In a three-part blog series, we’ll explore the key takeaways from the conversation.
Research shows that children can handle learning of two, and even three, languages from the time they start school. Yet foreign language requirements tend to become mandatory only in high school—and the requirements are not consistent across school districts. There is also a notion afoot that students need to be proficient in one language before introducing a second and a third. 
We know children are more open to learning languages at younger ages, so why wait until they're teens to reinforce the value of language? “We know that there is a window of availability to quickly and ably grasp language to a greater degree of fluency, and that it begins to close down as children get older,” said Marcie Craig Post, ILA’s executive director. “Capturing and leveraging that is going to be critically important.”
Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, noted, “As adults, it is hard for us to imagine young children picking up languages so quickly. We underestimate the ability of students to pick up languages, and really become proficient, I mean very proficient, in writing as well as speaking.” 
Engaging students’ parents is critical, said Leslie Engle Young, Director of Impact for Pencils of Promise. “If we don’t tap into that resource, we don’t tap into what children are capable of learning when they’re very young, even before school, and what the parents are capable of supporting in the home.”