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Early Linguists : Private Foreign-Language Schools Give Bilingual Education a New Twist

April 28, 1988|MICHELE LINGRE

In Monique Lough's class at Le Lycee International de Los Angeles, a French-American school in Van Nuys, 11 first-graders are halfway through a reading lesson, deciphering words on the chalkboard.

" Es-car-got, " Sabrina Cockrell, 6 reads.

" Oui , and what does the snail carry on its back?" Lough asks in French.

" Un shell," says an anonymous voice.

" En Francais ," Lough answers.

" Une coquille ," says Audrey Craitin, 6, from the back of the classroom.

Meanwhile in the front row, Rachid Bouhamidi, 6, is nonplused. " Un cookie?" he asks. But he recovers quickly and giggles over inventing the latest Franco-American pun.

When the noon bell rings, the students race into the hall to line up two by two as French school tradition dictates. Some don the all-American look, lunch box in hand and backpack flopped over the shoulder; others strap satchels on their backs. As they march to the lunchroom they chat in both English and French, switching easily between the two languages. At the age of 6 they are well on their way toward an academic accomplishment many Americans never attempt: bilingualism.

Why would a parent urge a child to fill his head with two languages? Isn't one enough?

"We used to live in Switzerland and children of friends there spoke two or three languages. It was no problem," said Judith Deutsch, mother of Celine Deutsch, an 11-year-old student at the Lycee International. "I felt stupid there, in Europe, because I could really only speak English. I feel we are ignorant in this country. Once in Europe, I heard a Texan being interviewed on TV, saying, 'The language of Christ is enough for me,' and he meant English. I believe being bilingual opens up your mind."

Marian Laquieze, president of the Parents and Teachers Assn. at the Lycee and mother of Valerie, 11, and Cedric, 6, both students at the Lycee, wanted her children to learn French because it is her husband's native tongue. "My daughter started out in the American public school system and spoke only English. But whenever we went to France or our parents came here, the children could not speak French with their grandparents.

The grandparents, Laquieze said, "felt frustrated. It is extremely sad not to be able to talk with your grandchild. We decided to put the children in the French school, and within a year they could express themselves in French."

Hal Wingard, executive director of the California Foreign Language Teachers Assn., believes that bilingualism gives children an academic advantage. "The classical study of the effect of bilingualism was done by Wallace Lambert of Montreal's McGill University and it showed that bilingual kids were more creative." Children don't link only one word to one object, he said, "and that frees them to manipulate symbols and enhances their thought processes."

Once a parent decides a child should learn a foreign language, the next step is selecting a method of teaching. Parents are frequently confused about methodology, said Madeline Ehrlich, the 46-year-old founder and president of Advocates for Language Learning, a Culver City parent-teacher support group. "What is second language acquisition? When should it begin? Parents don't really know." she said.

'Immersion' Method

According to Russell Campbell, director of the Language Resource Program at UCLA, "The immersion model seems to be the most effective in elementary school. In immersion, there is no formal foreign language instruction. The teachers are not teachers of Spanish as a second language; they are teachers of geography, social studies, math, and they teach that stuff in Spanish."

There is, said Campbell, an advantage to starting young. "The 5-year-old walks into the classroom and the teacher is speaking Spanish. What does he know? He's there, he deals with it. A 12-year-old has the power of reasoning (and therefore may learn at a faster pace), but now his parents' and society's biases impinge on him. This thinking kid can say, 'The hell with this. French is a sissy language anyway.' "

Language Not Required

Parents who hope their children will become bilingual at an early age may be disappointed in the offerings at public schools in the San Fernando Valley area. "Foreign language is not a required subject at the elementary level," said E. Jules Mandel, foreign language specialist in the office of secondary instruction of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"To graduate from high school, students must have had either one year of foreign language"--one period a day, five days a week--"or one year of fine arts instruction," Mandel said.

Other than moving to Culver City, Santa Monica, or San Diego, where intensive foreign language programs are offered in the public schools, a parent can choose from a hodgepodge of private schools in the San Fernando Valley area that offer systematic foreign language instruction.

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