In 2014, Baltimore County Public Schools launched the Passport Program, an initiative to begin Spanish language learning in the fourth grade with the hope that students would graduate high school with a higher level of proficiency. The program started small, with only 10 participating institutions, but has quickly grown to include 40 elementary schools and recently received national recognition from Fuel Education for its blend of in-class and digital instruction.
The program is only one part of an increased emphasis on world language learning for elementary, middle and high school students in Maryland. And though much of the expansion correlates with growing populations of non-native English speakers in the state, studies have long shown the benefits of studying a second language — particularly at the elementary level.
“Learning languages has numerous cognitive benefits,” says BCPS world languages coordinator Kim Shinozaki. “Children develop a stronger awareness of language, better verbal decoding, attention to patterns, critical and analytical skills, and more.”
Dr. Margarita Zisselsberger, assistant professor of literacy at Loyola University, agrees: “Bilingualism increases executive function and helps with problem-solving and multi-tasking as well.”
Another major benefit is metalinguistic development—the idea that you learn more about your language by studying other languages, she says, adding that some methodologies are more effective than others.
“Total immersion has not shown to be effective,” she says. “Trying to erase another language is not helpful.”
The BCPS program focuses on proficiency, moving away from textbook learning and toward authentic resources created by native speakers for native speakers.
“When you think of how we use language, it’s not to talk about language, but to talk about information,” Shinozaki says.
When children learn is important, too. According to both Shinozaki and Zisselsberger, elementary school is an especially effective for younger students to study language, physically (in terms of brain development) and socially.
“Kids are like little sponges,” Shinozaki says. “They’re not afraid to jump in and try. The older kids get, the more inhibited they feel.”
Some people, though, argue that language-learning can impede or replace traditional education. And while Zisselsberger acknowledges that it can slow younger children down a bit (“If you think of your brain as a file cabinet, they have more files to search through”), she says that it all evens out by second grade — and in ensuing years, bilingual students have been shown to outperform their peers considerably on major tests like the SAT and ACT.
Hence the existence of institutions like Archbishop Borders, a Catholic Pre-K through eighth grade school in Highlandtown. Though founded as a monolingual school in 2002, it transitioned into a 50/50 English and Spanish program beginning in 2010. The school initially made the switch to accommodate the area’s large Hispanic population, but has since become attractive to families hoping to raise bilingual children. There, students learn subjects like math, reading and social studies in both English and Spanish, operating on a 3-day-one-language, 2-day-the-other rotating weekly schedule.
“It’s a fully dual-language program,” says Zisselsberger, whose children attend the school, “so they’re learning content in both languages and developing a larger vocabulary. It’s not just 45 minutes a day out of context.”
The school’s population is incredibly diverse, too, with a 50% Hispanic population representing a variety of countries, and 50% white, black, Asian, European and other races and ethnicities. This speaks to the other major benefit of language learning at a young age: Cultural awareness, development and understanding.
“It exposes kids to other perspectives,” Shinozaki says. “They learn that there are other ways of organizing the world.”
Veronica Hernandez-Shepard, development coordinator and parent at ABB, was excited to send her own kids to the school because she wanted them to see those different perspectives. “I want my children to be exposed to different cultures. My parents are from Colombia and Spanish was my first language, but my husband is monolingual [speaking only English],” she says. “I think my kids are beginning to see the advantages of being able to speak to and communicate with more people.”