Just a few weeks into the school year, Ashford Park Elementary School Principal LaShawn McMillan said she watches in wonder as her kindergarten students count and sing songs in German.
“I’m just amazed at what the children have been able to do already,” McMillan said.
This year, the Brookhaven elementary school began a “dual-immersion” language program in which kindergarten students spend half of their school day learning in German.
Ashford Park is one of six elementary schools that received state funding this year to implement dual-immersion programs, with a goal of helping students become fluent in a foreign language by the fifth grade.
Students typically don’t walk into their first foreign language class until middle or high school. But educators are beginning to prioritize learning a second language much earlier in life.
Kevin Glass, headmaster at Atlanta International School in Buckhead, said research has found that young children are much better equipped to learn a new language than adults.
“Every human baby is born with … the ability to sound every language on God’s earth,” Glass said. “If you don’t stimulate those young brains, you’re not going to get as much neuroplasticity, you’re not going to get those synaptic connections.”
Glass said schools have been “notoriously slow” to apply this knowledge.
“Adults often find it really, really difficult to learn another language because their ears have been tuned to only the sound of their mother tongue,” Glass said. “Re-tuning those ears becomes more difficult the older we get because we lose neuroplasticity.”
Glass said Atlanta International School has offered a dual-immersion curriculum in German, French and Spanish for 28 years. Once the students leave elementary school, they may continue their language studies through middle and high school with the International Baccalaureate program, Glass said.
Two years ago, Glass said, the Atlanta International School began offering a “full-immersion” preschool program for 3 year olds and 4 year olds. In that program, all preschool activities are taught in French, Spanish or German.
The program has been a “phenomenal success” because the young children are able to learn so quickly, Glass said.
“They’re like little sponges, soaking it all in,” Glass said. “They’re rapidly able to function in that language.”
The Georgia Department of Education gave seed money to six schools to help establish dual-immersion language programs for the 2013-2014 school year, said Gregory Barfield, program specialist for international affairs. The Georgia General Assembly reserved the funding for the dual-immersion programs as part of the Georgia Workforce Initiative.
“[State Superintendent] Dr. [John] Barge has said what he would like to happen is the ‘20 by 20’ — at least 20 dual immersion programs in Georgia by the year 2020,” Barfield said.
The dual-immersion programs are not mandatory, so parents can choose whether or not they would like for their children to participate. Barfield said. This year, the schools started with two dual-immersion classes at the kindergarten level, and will continue the program each year until it is available through the fifth grade. Each school selects which language it would like to offer, Barfield said.
McMillan said the German language was a natural fit for Ashford Park.
“Our middle school, Chamblee Middle School, and Chamblee High School have nationally recognized programs for German, and our children will feed into those schools,” McMillan said.
There are also a lot of German businesses located near the school, she said. “Germany has invested a lot in this community,” McMillan said.
McMillan said German officials have pledged resources and materials for the program, and Germany’s Minister of Education is scheduled to visit Ashford Park in late September.
McMillan said she was excited about bringing the dual-immersion program to Ashford Park to give students something unique.
“As the principal, I felt like it would be a great opportunity for my students to get a global perspective. And the opportunity to be bilingual is a wonderful opportunity for my kids, and it gives them an edge in life,” McMillan said. “What we’re seeing more and more is it’s so important for kids to know another language.”