grade school homeschool child learning a foreign language

Why Learn a Foreign Language in Grade School

When is the best time to start a child in foreign language classes?

When I was in public school as a child, we were not introduced to foreign languages until 8th grade. It was not until we reached high school that foreign language was mandatory. Many of you probably had a similar experience. Therefore, we may conceive of foreign language as best suited for middle and high school, but not elementary. After all, why saddle an elementary-aged child with having to learn a second language when they’re still working on mastering English? Right?

Actually, there are many wonderful reasons to introduce your child to a foreign language during grade school. Additionally, there are benefits that go beyond language acquisition and retention!

Builds Literacy in English

Literacy development is one of the most important aspects of academic success. It is the process of learning words, sounds, and language. Research suggests that exposing children to foreign languages earlier may expedite their overall literacy development, not only in the foreign language but also in their primary language.

A study in 2005 compared students who began their foreign language instruction in kindergarten versus students who did not start until they were in fifth grade, checking for literary proficiency. The early start group outperformed their peers. An especial proficiency was noted in oral skills (Dominguez & Pessoa, 2005). A similar study in 2013 found that grade school age children introduced to a foreign language demonstrated advanced literacy in their vocabulary and letter word recognition. (Durán, Roseth, Hoffman & Robertshaw, 2013) The takeaway here is that foreign language studies during the elementary years can help your child’s literacy development across the board.

Develops Problem-Solving Skills

Why does introducing a foreign language at a younger age help children become better problem solvers? Whereas a primary language is learned intuitively by immersion, secondary languages are learned differently. It generally follows a TOA structured methodology that requires analytical thinking. Learning a language this way requires children to analyze information and solve linguistic problems. Those of you who have studied a foreign language know that sometimes the work of translating is akin to solving a puzzle.

Learning a new language demands flexibility and determination. As the child maneuvers through the intricacies of grammar, vocabulary, and cultural nuance, he cultivates resilience and problem-solving abilities. (Bamford & Mizakowa, 1991) The child becomes a more rational and objective decision-maker.

Enhances Task Switching

Another great benefit of introducing young children to a foreign language is the ability to enhance task switching. Task switching is a fundamental cognitive process related to how we process different mental tasks and how attention is allocated. Cognitive task switching is like juggling different tasks in your mind. For example, imagine working on a math problem and then suddenly switching to composing an email. To do this, your brain has to shift gears from one task to another. It is similar to multitasking, but instead of doing two things simultaneously, you’re switching between them. This switching can take time and mental effort, and it can affect how well you perform each task.

Evidence shows that practice in a foreign language improves task switching in general. A 2016 study found that “regular practice using multiple languages confers a broader executive function advantage shown as improved flexibility in task switching.” (Wiseheart et al., 2016) In other words, the mental work involved in learning a foreign language helps children reallocate their attention to multiple tasks more effectively.

Young Children Are Better Language Learners

Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that children are naturally better language learners. Young children have certain cognitive advantages that make it easier for them to learn languages than older children. For one thing, young children form neural connections rapidly, which makes learning a new language easier.

As a child’s brain develops, it becomes more specialized, focusing more on utilizing existing neural pathways rather than forming new ones. This is sometimes called the “critical period” in language acquisition, where the brain’s elasticity uniquely suits young children to pick up a second language. This critical period begins as early as age one and lasts through puberty (Friedmann, 2015). Simply put, a child will have an easier time learning a second language if it is introduced earlier.


Of course, what you do with a foreign language depends on your particular needs and the personalized plan you have for your child. If your child has no real interest in a foreign language and just needs a year or two to satisfy a state requirement, waiting until high school is certainly a valid option. But if your child has a real interest in language and you are more interested in mastery over the long term, then consider getting your child started in a foreign language much earlier. The benefits of grade school foreign language studies are well attested, and your child may enjoy it more than you think.

If you’d like help with foreign language classes, Homeschool Connections offers grade school Latin and German online for grades three through six.

How have you tackled foreign language instruction in your homeschool? Join me and other homeschooling parents at our Homeschool Connections Community or our Facebook group. We’d love to hear about your favorite homeschool ideas or answer your questions!

Resources to help you in your Catholic homeschool…

Catholic Homeschool Classes Online

Homeschooling Saints Podcast

Good Counsel Careers

The Catholic Homeschool Conference

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