Language program introduces culture to young minds
Cmdr. William C. McCool Elementary/Middle School (MEMS) students have the opportunity to learn a foreign language that may broaden their minds and encourage diversity.
According to MEMS language teacher Thomas Sandvick, learning a foreign language and culture can benefit students in a number of ways.
“Learning about another culture allows students to expand their view of the world community,” he said. “They compare and contrast cultural norms of foreign cultures with their own, providing an opportunity to take a critical look inside their own culture. The same goes for language.”
At MEMS, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish classes are available for students from the sixth to eighth grade. Sandvick, addressed by his students as Sang Laoshi when instructing Mandarin Chinese at the school, meets with his students for 75 minutes every other day for instruction.
“Students learn all the facets of the language, from tone, to radicals as building blocks of characters, to the stroke order for how to write characters,” he said. “To help with pronunciation, students learn to read Pinyin, a phonetic system developed by the Chinese and used by the international media as a standard system of spelling Chinese names. For language communication, students learn to greet one another, talk about family, school life, activities or hobbies and use dates and time.”
According to Sandvick, learning a foreign language must be tied to learning the culture behind it.
“Culture is a reflection of language and vice versa; therefore, the two are not treated as separate entities,” Sandvick said. “To the greatest extent possible, language is taught within the context of culture.”
An example of students using language in the context of culture is students being put in situations in which they can practice them.
“In learning their Chinese names, students are put in a situation similar to what would happen in a Chinese classroom at the start of class when the teacher takes attendance,” Sandvick said. “At the same time, students learn the proper classroom etiquette for starting and ending class each day by going through the process themselves every day.”
The instruction is also kept up to date, creating a virtual travel experience for students.
“Students don’t just learn to say numbers in Chinese, but learn historical and present-day significance of certain numbers used in Chinese,” Sandvick said. “Students also learn hand gestures for the numbers they would likely encounter in an open street market in China. In addition to all this, technology is used as much as possible.”
According to Sandvick, learning a new language at a younger age helps students speak the language better than if they were to learn it later.
“The younger a student is when she or he begins the study of a second language, the easier it is to master the language,” he said. “Younger minds are more flexible in processing languages. Students who begin speaking a second language at a young age have a greater capacity to master the phonetic system and intonation patterns, thereby increasing their ability to be understood by native speakers of the language.”
Sandvick said learning a foreign language does not only have benefits for the student, but for the world as a whole.
“Learning a foreign language or culture provides a culturally-literate citizen who is more empathetic and able to adapt easily to cultural situations that might otherwise be difficult to navigate or understand,” he said. “Overall, the learner of a foreign language and culture develops the skill that allows him or her to participate with confidence in a multi-cultural society, whether that be locally or globally, at work or for leisure. Foreign competency is a vital piece of 21st century education and is embraced not only by our school but DoDEA (Department of Defense Education Activity) worldwide.”