By Rachel Hess Wachman (Print Editor-in-Chief)
Many of us students fondly remember participating in the Foreign Language Exploratory Program (FLEX) in fifth grade, giving us the chance to explore ten weeks of French, ten weeks of Chinese, and ten weeks of Spanish before deciding which path to pursue in middle school.
However, in the years since we were in elementary school, Sharon Public Schools has instituted a Spanish language program that begins in first or second grade and continues each year. Last spring, the School Committee moved to continue the Spanish program in fifth grade classrooms, thus eliminating the FLEX program that gave many of us a chance to sample several languages before deciding. However, there is a growing concern among the members of the World Language Department that this decision will negatively impact enrollment for French and Mandarin.
“While continuing with Spanish is positive for continuity and reaching a higher proficiency level in Spanish, students will not be exposed to French and Mandarin, which are their other world language options in middle school,” said World Language Coordinator Dr. Kristina Dahlen.
The first wave of elementary schoolers who now have several years of Spanish as part of the FLES program (Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools) under their belts will become sixth graders next fall, meaning that these students now face the upcoming choice to continue with Spanish or pick either French or Mandarin.
“In order to expose students to their full range of choices, the World Language teachers and volunteers at Sharon Middle School and Sharon High School will visit the fifth grade classrooms to teach a few lessons in French and Mandarin,” said Dahlen.
“Based on discussions with teachers and reviewing historical data regarding course selections, we know that some students may continue to choose Spanish and others may decide to try a new language, as has been the pattern in past years prior to the elementary Spanish program,” said Superintendent Dr. Victoria Greer. “Dr. Magnan, FLES Facilitator, and Dr. Dahlen, Secondary Language Coordinator, have been engaging in discussions and planning for students who have advanced language skills when entering 6th grade.”
Spanish teacher Mr. Christopher Brillant says that as a department, the language teachers were a little surprised to learn of the School Committee’s decision. “Now we’re looking for ways to help the FLES teachers find ways to introduce a little French and Mandarin into their classrooms at some point this year.”
“We’re looking at a higher level of proficiency at a younger age, given that students who have more exposure to languages at an earlier age.” said Brillant. The middle school Spanish teachers have been working towards adjusting their curricula accordingly.
“We are excited that our elementary students have the opportunity to learn Spanish at the elementary level,” said Greer. “It is our hope that with the students having exposure to the Spanish language much earlier that this will shift the entry levels and access points for Spanish for students at the middle school level.”
While true that beginning language learning from a younger age means that children are able to better learn and retain information, the choice to institute Spanish and eliminate FLEX spreads the idea that Spanish is more useful or prevalent in the world than either French or Mandarin. In reality, each language has its own benefits and relevance in different contexts.
“There have been so many studies and research pointing to the fact that the earlier someone is exposed to a foreign language, the more proficient they become,” said Brillant. “Also, the brain is more adept at learning languages when somebody is younger. When you reach adolescence, that natural ability to learn a foreign language begins to close and it’s a little bit harder to acquire knowledge in a foreign language.”
“I would like to emphasize that our desire is to ensure that all students have a well rounded educational experience in our schools,” added Greer.
The future of foreign language learning in Sharon remains bright. “The teachers in the language department are very proud of the programs we offer and we’re lucky in Sharon to have a situation where we can offer several different languages with several strong programs at a high school level,” said Brillant. “Any way we can maintain that and continue the rigorous experience we offer for our students, travel opportunities and everything in between, that’s what it’s all about.