Language Education: Two Years and Three Months

Almost exactly two years ago, a good friend of mine and I circulated a petition in our tiny community to request that our school board add instruction in a second language to our elementary school curriculum. My friend, who coincidentally is German, is bilingual and is raising her kids as such. I am monolingual, as is glaringly obvious to me every time I speak German here, but am more comfortable with a second language than most Americans.

Knowing the benefits of a second language and that it’s easier to learn a language at a young age, we felt that the lack of foreign language education in our school was not acceptable. We knew that others in our community felt the same way. Our town is tiny, but it is a College Town. What’s more, this College bills itself as a leader in global language education, with an ever expanding array of international programs. Clearly language education in our tiny town would be embraced, or so we thought.

After a bit of hand-wringing, the school board did what most boards do: they formed a committee to study the feasibility of a second language program. The story that follows is long and complex, and one in which I get very frustrated and lose much sleep. It leads me to run for school board, join many other unrelated committees, lobby the global leader in language education to no avail, do extensive research on the benefits of language education, rally other parents, put our school principal on speed dial, fail to get school board support, lobby yet another board, get both of these boards to form more committees, and finally to resign from all of this and escape to Germany for a year.

Two years ago I did not know that I would now be living abroad, that my kids would actually have the benefit of learning a second language at a young age. Had I known, I wouldn’t have done anything differently because my goal all along was not simply to get a program started for the benefit of my kids, but for the benefit of all the children in my town—heck, in all the surrounding towns too. But the fact that my children are receiving the experience of learning a second language, and I am able to watch it first-hand on a daily basis, like time-lapse photography, reinforces all my beliefs that led to the work I did in my community’s schools. I want all kids to be able to experience the magic of communicating in a language that is not their own, and if they work really hard, to make this language feel like their own.

Before we came to Germany, Jason and I talked to many parents who had lived abroad in non-English speaking countries with their young children. They all told us that it would take about three months before the kids would feel comfortable enough with the new language to participate adequately in school. And Germans we met here, who’d lived abroad with their children, said the same thing. Three is the magic number.

Everyone also said that getting through to that magic three-month mark is excruciatingly difficult. There would be tears, refusals to go to school, confusion, homesickness, difficult discussions with teachers, more tears. Indeed, there was all that and more. I often felt terrible about the torture I was putting my children through. How could I throw them into a situation in which they knew nobody and could understand almost nothing, and expect them to survive? What kind of a mother would do that?

But with the support of amazing teachers and wonderful peers, each week we saw school become a bit easier for Greta and Anya. (I’ll note here, but leave the details for another blog post about Kindergarten, that Walter did not have the same experience. Every week became more difficult for him without the teacher and peer support he needed, and we actually decided to take him out of school at about the three-month mark.)

For Anya, in second grade, much of her growing comfort has come through play, song, games and art with friends.  She was fortunate to be paired with a girl who’d lived in England for two years, who helped her translate the first several weeks of school.  She found ways to play schoolyard games, paint flowers and suns, sing the morning welcome song, stack blocks in the math lab, and socialize with the tightknit group of girls in her class, while her German grew without her even being aware of it.

It wasn’t and still isn’t always easy. While her German has improved, she still can’t quite understand the complexities of the little-girl relationships in her class, and she often feels left-out. But she works through the ups and downs, and finds many ways to shine. In mid-November, her school began rehearsing to sing at the opening of the Göttingen Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market), and Anya dug right in, perfecting pronunciation along with pitch. She was right in the middle of the pack of kids, singing her heart out, in her second language. And now, we can’t get her to stop singing!

For Greta, in 5th grade at a top-notch Gymnasium (the German pre-collegiate track junior and senior high school), her expanding ability at German has come through extremely focused work. She is in a bilingual class, which means that many of her classmates also have an English-language connection or interest. But this doesn’t mean that everything is in both English and German–indeed only English is taught in English in 5th grade. Since the second week of school, she has also had the benefit of daily German lessons for non-German speakers, which has helped her figure out some of the complexities of German grammar. And at the suggestion of a teacher, we engaged an exceptional 8th grader to help her with her homework a few times per month.

In September, we found out that throughout November, the third month of school, Gymnasium students take their first set of quarterly exams in each of their major classes, meaning that Greta would have to take written exams in English, Math, German, History, Geography, Biology and Music. The assumption of her lead-teacher, and us, was that her German would not be strong enough to complete the language-heavy exams, especially for German and History. Instead of a grade, she would be given a note that signifies her language knowledge was not strong enough to complete the exam. And even for the exams she could complete, Jason and I should tell her that if she gets all Cs, she is doing extremely well.

Greta has always been a strong student, but she has never been faced with a multitude of rigorous exams in such a broad array of subjects. She told me that she’s never had to study for an exam before, as she’s just known what to do. So we did our best to lower her expectations and back-off so that she felt no pressure from us. But Greta did what any good student would do: she studied really hard!

I don’t think I realized how hard she’d studied until she started to bring home the fruits of her labor. Behind all of the As and Bs were word-lists, practice essays and problems sets, maps, diagrams, and pages and pages of reading. Greta was learning German, but she was also learning how to study for and take an exam, how to succeed in a rigorous school. One teacher commented on her A+ history exam, “Your command of the German language is stunning!”

I realize that all of this sounds like maternal bragging, and it is. For those of you who have ever been fully immersed in a non-native language and culture, you will be nodding your head, recalling just exactly how difficult it is to get through every day. I, who can still be reduced to tears by a confusing phone conversation here, where I can neither understand nor be understood, marvel at the ability of my girls to sing, read, write, play, succeed in another language.

So when I first conceived of this blog post, it was going to be about more details of the first three months of language learning here, and the magic of making it to that third month and being able to ace an exam or sing in public. And it would have probably been full of more cloying maternal bragging and wonder. But on Friday, I received a copy of the Second Language Feasibility Study for my home school district. The study has finally come, two years after our petition, and the answer is, yes, improving our second/global language education program is feasible… maybe.

Improving and expanding educational curriculum is complex, and it’s costly. Because most of my professional career has been working in educational finance and policy, I have spent thousands of hours analyzing the complexities of educational improvement and reform. I think the best argument for not expanding the curriculum of a small school district of modest means and declining enrollment is money. It’s expensive to hire good teachers and purchase all the related materials that come with a new curricular initiative.

But cost is barely mentioned in the Feasibility Study. Instead, the largest barrier presented is time. Not the time of those who would have to implement the program, but the actual number of hours in a school day. When asked, principals said that they could support a global language program if there were more time in the day. Many said that the days were already filled to the brim with current subjects, and that adding a second language would just not fit.

Over the past two years when I was working directly on this issue, I always found this argument to be confusing; after all, kids are in school for over six hours a day, so couldn’t some time be found to teach them Spanish? And then, when I came here and sent my kids to German schools, I was stunned at how short the school days are here, and most kids start learning English in first grade!

Before I dig into this, I will note that there are many cultural, social, structural and financial differences between German and American schools. Then, add onto that the differences between rural and small urban schools, and one might think it would be difficult to compare apples to apples. But I believe that when simply looking at how a school choses to use the hours in the day, a valuable comparison can still be made.

In Vermont, our school has a six hour and ten minute school day, and that is the shortest of any of the surrounding elementary schools, with the longest being seven hours. Here, in the equivalent of an elementary school with grades first through fourth, Anya’s school day is five hours long (7:50 – 12:50). Within that time, three 45-minute blocks per week are dedicated to English. There is also daily math and language arts, four blocks for physical education, two for art, one for music, one for religion, and several that focus on social studies and science or other areas as opportunities arise.

Greta’s fifth grade middle school-equivalent days average 5.4 hours (7:50 – 1:05, with every-other Thursday 7:50-3:20). In her bilingual class, an average of seven 45-minute blocks per week are dedicated to learning English; in the Classical and Mathematics lines, four blocks per week are for English. I’ve already noted above her core subjects, but she also has religion, physical education, art, and next semester will add physics. In sixth grade they add a third language as well as chemistry. Each year the school days do become a bit longer, until in high school I believe school days average about 6.5 hours.

When I asked Greta how she thought they could fit in so many subjects in less than 5 ½ hours per day, she told me that the school schedule here is genauer. She actually couldn’t think of an English word to describe the difference between her school schedule back home and the one she has here! Genauer means “more precise.” But it doesn’t mean rigid, as teachers do move things around as opportunities arise to see a special show, celebrate a holiday, have a guest speaker, etc. But each day has a schedule, and the schedule is followed. Kids carry their schedules around with their books and are expected to memorize them.

Children here, even starting in early elementary school, are given more responsibility, so less time is spent herding kids through the day. No lining up to come and go from recess, no group bathroom breaks. In Greta’s school, class leaders have keys to their classroom so every morning they unlock the door and get ready for the teacher to arrive. Class starts at 7:50 when the teacher walks in. And a huge difference is that except for on Greta’s “long day,” neither of my girl’s school days include time for lunch. They bring large morning snacks – Frühstuck – that are eaten during breaks/recess.

A final large difference is in the length of the school year, which is much longer in Germany than in the United States. Summer break here is just six weeks. My kids started school here in mid-August, and the school year will last beyond our stay, ending on July 22nd (the exact dates of each school year varies as each German state takes turns with the early and late year starts and finishes). With more school days, less has to be crammed into each lesson, and less has to be retaught after a long summer holiday. School days can be shorter, in part, because school years are longer.

I’m not necessarily advocating for school days as short as they are here; they are a nightmare for working parents! Indeed, many schools here are trying to lengthen school days, at parental urging, to include lunch, afternoon specialties and care for younger children. But I will say that the shorter days have been a blessing for my kids who’ve been exhausted by negotiating so much in a foreign language. I’m sure that developmental brain research would suggest that shorter school days are more advantageous for younger children’s attention spans and stamina.

I am arguing though, that school schedules are what you make them. A lot of learning can be accomplished, including both a second language and substantive science too, in a much shorter school day than those in Vermont. Especially starting in fifth grade, when kids really are ready to take on more responsibility themselves, figure out what no longer needs to be taught or managed, and fill that time with science and Spanish.

When I asked the girls how they felt about being able to speak another language, they both responded that they felt proud. And, when I told Greta that when she returns home to start middle school, she won’t be able to take another language in school, she was truly sad for herself and her friends. “But I think so many of my friends would really like to learn another language!” she said. “Why can’t they just find a way to fit it in?” Genau!

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6 Responses to Language Education: Two Years and Three Months

  1. Corinna Noelke says:

    Genau!

  2. baerbel79 says:

    Born and raised in Germany and moving to the States at 24 to study there I applaud your children. It is quite an achievement to negotiate your days in a non-native language, especially considering that your girls had not been ‘spoiled’, like myself, with early exposure to another language through their school system in Vermont. I have always been trying to find a way to discuss the differences in school systems without judging by comparison. Especially because, as you make quite clear, it is hard to compare the two to begin with. Thank your daughter for me, please, as I think from hereon out I will say: it is genauer, whenever asked. 🙂

  3. frank shaw says:

    Thanks for this lovely post. Congratulations to your girls and to you! This takes me back to the tough days our kids (grades 8 and 9) had in France. We didn’t have much of an idea of what they were up against until we did the back to school night at the end of September. Two hours of straight French nearly crippled us! The French middle school day runs from 8:30 until 4:30, with an hour and a half off for lunch.

    The time issue is an interesting though common argument against early language education. First, you have the union contract that, in Minnesota at least, specifies the number of contact minutes that a teacher has. If you reduce this by bringing in a specialist, you will be not be able to pay the teachers less, so you have to substitute language for music or art of gym. More important these days is the notion that every available minute needs to be devoted to cramming reading and math so that the school, or the teacher, won’t be found to be deficient after the next round of tests. Curricula are shrinking everywhere because, until 8th grade, there are only two subjects that matter and everything (funding, enrollment, community pride) depends on how the test scores in these subjects come out.

    Another problem here is that people don’t take language education seriously. “People” means parents, principals, students and their teachers, basically everyone. That’s how you can have a “strong” high school German program that, in five years, covers less than a middle school program in France covers in three. I don’t think we actually believe that there’s any urgency to this in this country.

  4. peggy wang says:

    I will go to sabbatical in Max Planck Institute on September, and my son will be 13 (8th grade). Thank you very much for sharing your family’s experience, and gratulations to your daughter.

    • ruthhardy says:

      Peggy, I’m so glad you found our blog. Best of luck to you and your son next year. We’ve had a great year, not without challenges, but definitely worth all of the effort. I highly recommend the Felix Klein Gymnasium bilingual program for your son. Excellent teachers and a great school!

  5. Pingback: Biking Without Pedals | Fünf in Deutschland

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