First-graders say `Oui' to taking French class


April 21, 2004|By Tawanda W. Johnson | Tawanda W. Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jennifer Nguyen is thrilled that her 6-year-old son, Alex, is learning French.

Alex is among 15 first-graders in Judy Gottsagen's class at Stevens Forest Elementary School in Columbia learning French, in "a friendly noncompetitive way."

"I think it's fantastic," she said. "The younger they are when they learn a [foreign] language, the better. European countries are doing it, and so should the U.S."

The first-graders are taking lessons from three advanced-level students at Oakland Mills High School. Alex Douyon, Judith Sarkodee-Adoo and Zandy Tepe meet with the pupils once a week for about 30 minutes to teach them the fundamentals of French, including the alphabet, colors, months, seasons, animals and days of the week.

The program, which is not part of the Howard County public school system's formal curricula, began about two years ago after Elizabeth Gray, now an Oakland Mills graduate, thought it would be fun to teach the language to small children.

Oakland Mills French teacher Paula Micka said Gray, who is studying in France through Dickinson College, did a phenomenal job.

"She wrote a curriculum and taught three days a week," Micka said. The three students who took the reins from Gray are also doing a great job, added Micka.

"They are working hard and have gotten rave reviews from Mrs. Gottsagen," she said. "They are animated, fun, intelligent people and could light up any room."

The students say they are having a good time teaching French to the younger schoolchildren.

"I think it's fun," said Judith. "Everybody likes being in that teacher's position, having control."

"Not only is it fun," added Alex Douyon, "but it's great to just have kids looking up to you."

On his third language

Alex Nguyen is learning his third language, said his mother.

Besides English and French, he is studying Vietnamese, the language of his father's homeland.

When asked to pronounce a French word he had learned, Alex said "bonjour," which means hello.

"I'm having fun," he said. "I learned numbers, letters and music."

The pupils are prepared for each lesson with French music from a compact disc, "Sing, Dance, Laugh and Eat Quiche," said Alex Douyon.

After the little ones have clapped their hands and stomped their feet to the music, the high school students launch into their lesson plans.

Games children play

Included are games such as "Jeopardy!," in which the children answer questions in French and compete for small prizes. The teen-agers also make sure their pupils have a chance to decide what they want to learn.

Gottsagen praised the teaching methods.

"They are very creative and very flexible," she said. "They play different games with them, including Simon Says."

She added that she supports the program because of her love of diverse cultures.

"I put up a multitude of hellos [in different languages] in my class. I like for the children to be exposed [to different cultures]," she said.

In Howard County schools, pupils are formally introduced to a foreign language in middle school, but according to a spokeswoman in the county's foreign language department, a summer elementary foreign language program may happen this year.

In Arlington, Va., public schools, a formal elementary Spanish program, which began during the 1999-2000 school year, has garnered much support.

Strong support

According to a survey conducted during the 2000-2001 school year by the Arlington school system, 91 percent of parents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "I am in favor of teaching a foreign language to elementary children."

Almost 60 percent said a foreign language should be given the same status and priority as other core subjects, including English, math and science. The survey also found 76 percent of schoolchildren "strongly agreeing" with the statement "I want to learn to speak Spanish well."

Supporters of teaching foreign language to elementary children say youngsters are more successful at learning a new language at an earlier age; studying a foreign language reinforces learning in other areas; and a foreign language prepares them to work in a global society, according to the survey.

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