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Bilingual preschool in Greensburg speaks to demand for earlier foreign language instruction

Jeff Himler
| Saturday, July 9, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Harper Watson, 4, of Greensburg plays at Petit Paris bilingual preschool in Greensburg on Friday, July 8, 2016.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Harper Watson, 4, of Greensburg plays at Petit Paris bilingual preschool in Greensburg on Friday, July 8, 2016.
Anna Maria Skop, owner of Petit Paris bilingual preschool in Greensburg, instructs Harper Watson, 4, of Greensburg on Friday, July 8, 2016.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Anna Maria Skop, owner of Petit Paris bilingual preschool in Greensburg, instructs Harper Watson, 4, of Greensburg on Friday, July 8, 2016.

When 4-year-old Harper Watson sits down to a meal with family members, she insists that they wish each other “bon appetit” before they enjoy their repast. And when she calls her mother's attention to a colorful ladybug, she is likely to use the French name for the insect — coccinelle.

The Unity girl is among students enrolled in a new French and English bilingual preschool opening later this month in Greensburg.

Petit Paris is among local schools where students are reaping the benefits of exposure to a second language before they enter ninth grade.

“I definitely see a benefit to having dual languages at a young age,” said Harper's mother, Courtney. “She's flexible in the way she thinks and is a little bit more creative.”

Nancy Rhodes, a senior consultant for world language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., said recent studies have pointed to a number of ways early absorption of a foreign tongue can boost children's development.

“Research has shown students who study languages score higher in creativity and problem-solving.” Those are attributes that can apply across academic subjects.

Rhodes added: “Learning a second language actually enhances their native language skills.”

Before striking out on her own, Petit Paris operator Anna Maria Skop introduced French language to Harper and fellow students while working at another local preschool.

“After two to three months, the kids were speaking French between them,” Skop said.

Based on those results, Watson decided to have her daughter continue French instruction privately with Skop until Petit Paris sessions begin.

“Her social skills have been enhanced a lot,” Watson said. “She used to be very shy and wasn't as outgoing. Now she is the first to volunteer; she wants to be a part of learning.”

Watson said she anticipates more long-term benefits for her daughter.

“I want her to have a multicultural awareness,” she said, while pointing out that skills in a foreign language “would look great on her resume.”

Skop said she plans to converse with her students in French 75 percent of the time, reverting to English for formal learning.

“I want to have them exposed to the language as much as I can,” she said. But, “When we're learning new geography, we'll use English words.”

Skop believes her students will enjoy enhanced use of their second language by acquiring it at an early age: “They learn without an accent, so they can get the most authentic learning experience.”

“They have the ability to mimic in a way that, actually, you start to lose after puberty,” said Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Alexandria, Va. After that milestone, she said, “your ability to sound like a native speaker of that language becomes limited in most people.”

Some districts starting earlier

The norm among area public schools is offering foreign language instruction beginning in ninth grade.

But Greensburg Salem School District offers an additional exploratory program for fifth-graders that serves double duty as a practical experience for advanced Spanish and French learners at the high school.

Superintendent Eileen Amato said older students who enroll in the “Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools” course take part in immersive instruction at the high school: “They speak the language every day in their classroom and they come down and teach one class a week to the fifth-graders.”

After that initial exposure, Amato said, students have the opportunity to begin more extensive language instruction in the eighth grade, potentially advancing as far as a sixth-level course in Spanish or a fourth-level course in French. An Advanced Placement course is offered in each language.

While the district dropped Chinese language courses because of insufficient enrollment, Amato said interest in the district's remaining language offerings is strong: “A lot of our students take multiple languages.

“This past year, a lot received scholarships who were going into international business or into advanced work in languages.”

In neighboring Hempfield Area School District, foreign languages previously were offered at the elementary level, with students receiving one day of instruction per week, spending a semester each concentrating on Spanish and French.

But Superintendent Barbara Marin indicated that program was discontinued several years ago because of budgetary constraints.

For similar reasons in 2016-17, Hempfield has dropped two teaching positions at the secondary level, one each in Spanish and Latin, through attrition. Marin said Latin still will be offered, but only through the district's online academy, while existing staff will take up the slack for the lost Spanish position.

In Westmoreland County, Belle Vernon Area, Mt. Pleasant Area and Norwin are among districts that have offered exploratory courses students can take in middle school or junior high to help them decide what languages they want to pursue more extensively in upper grade levels.

Assistant Superintendent Anthony DeMarco said Mt. Pleasant Area offers Spanish and French instruction, with students in an accelerated reading program offered enrollment in introductory world language courses.

“The demand is there. It's in the eighth grade, and we're looking to expand it into the seventh grade,” DeMarco said. “Once they get to the ninth grade, they can pick their (language) track.”

Reversing trend?

In its most recent national survey of K-12 foreign language instruction, Rhodes said, the Center for Applied Linguistics found in 2008 that “a lot of the elementary schools had recently dropped foreign languages.”

They cited concerns about budgets and the economy and a shift in emphasis on boosting math and reading skills to meet federal testing standards.

From 1997 to 2008, schools offering foreign languages fell from 31 percent to 25 percent among all elementary schools and from 75 percent to 58 percent among middle schools.

Abbott said she believes a new trend has begun of increased interest in world language programs among public schools.

“I think it's a really 21st century skill that all students need,” she said. “If we want to sell our goods abroad, we need to know the language of the customers we're selling them to.”

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622 or jhimler@tribweb.com.

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