Start language learning in lower school

Language – Dr. Andrew Fenton teaching in Virtue Village, April 16, 2021 – Jeffrey Yang ‘22

As a pre-K through twelfth-grade institution, Haverford has the opportunity to start teaching a subject near the very beginning of one’s education—when the student more resembles a blank sheet of paper than anything close to a “critical thinker”—and follow that subject through, each year increasing the student’s understanding until he finally reaches the upper grades of high school and, having nearly mastered that subject, can begin to truly explore its depths.

     Haverford does this for pretty much every subject other than language.

     I myself have been a student at Haverford since pre-K and have only recently realized how much valuable time Haverford has neglected through its policy of waiting to teach languages—Chinese, Spanish, and Latin in our case—in middle school. It’s as if Haverford functions as two separate institutions, with lower school completely distinct from the middle and upper schools. Those of us who started in the beginning—kids who can barely remember a time before they went here—have seen this disjointedness in action: we learned to read and write in one language, then suddenly reached middle school and were expected to add another to that equation.

     There was a seven-year gap between the time when I came to Haverford, and the time when my classmates and I began what used to be called the (excellent) “Prima Lingua” class in sixth grade. Not only are these seven years—from age four to eleven—a long period of time to learn any subject, but they have also been proven to be part of the most important period in one’s life for acquiring language.

     In 2018, Time Magazine reported on a study from researchers at Boston College, Harvard, and MIT, saying that “it’s ‘nearly impossible’ for language learners to reach native-level fluency if they start learning a second tongue after age 10.” This doesn’t mean that language learning after age ten—the only kind that Haverford offers—is useless. It just means that our students will never reach the upper levels of proficiency in the current model. Teachers from the language department, who all have extensive knowledge on the subject, know this fact. 

     “I think everyone—all upper school, middle school teachers, administration, everyone—would agree that studying languages younger helps development and helps to move along the language journey younger, earlier, and is better for the brain,” Language Department Chair Mr. Andrew Poolman said. 

     Mr. Javier Lluch, who not only teaches Spanish but also went through the process of learning English as his third language—after Spanish and Catalan—agreed on the broad benefits of bringing language learning to the lower school and added another point:

     “They would be more accustomed to speaking in another language, period,” Mr. Lluch said. “It doesn’t even have to be anything that we offer here. They could go and learn, I don’t know, Greek, or something, and they would be more comfortable with the act of speaking a second language.” 

     Mr. Lluch added, “Most of the world is bilingual.”

     So, if the language department agrees on the clear merits of a lower school language program, why hasn’t it happened yet? 

     So, if the language department agrees on the clear merits of a lower school language program, why hasn’t it happened yet? 

     The answer is that building a lower school language program is simply a challenging task. The Language Department “has considered a number of different programs,” Mr. Poolman said. “We’ve thought about this and discussed it for a number of years and the challenges that we always run into are time and resources, but we will continue to look for ways to make a language program work for our younger students.”

     “The hardest part is scheduling it,” Mr. Lluch said. “It’s very difficult to make time in the day to put in one more thing. Everyone’s like, ‘alright, we’re going to have language; what needs to go?’ So that has been the most difficult conversation.”

     Mr. Lluch added that the next most difficult conversation was the enrollment: “The lower school is pretty small. If we had more students, then we could hire more teachers, which would give us more choice.” 

     Talking to Mr. Poolman and Mr. Lluch, I saw that the language department is doing a lot to create a good lower school language program; they want to create a program that is thoughtful and doesn’t just teach “the same thing for five or six years,” as Mr. Lluch said.

     So, this opinion is directed towards those who hold power at Haverford. Know that many students would enjoy the experience of entering the school as baby-faced, monolingual four-year olds and exiting as men who speak fluent Spanish or Chinese (sorry Latin), knowing that our language skills had developed just as thoroughly as the academic skills that we had started learning in lower school. According to Time Magazine, I will never speak Spanish at native-level fluency, but it’s your decision whether the future will.