From the doorway, the classroom activities look similar to those in which most American preschool students participate.
A teacher – in this case a slender, young man named William Li – sits on a rug on the vinyl-tiled floor. Two boys, Will Behan, 5, of St. Charles, and Landon Fanale, 4, of Geneva, sit on the rug facing him.
The group sings songs and works through playful exercises to build vocabulary, digest new concepts and learn how to correctly and politely identify themselves.
But if someone pauses while passing by the classroom in the lower level of the Congregational United Church of Christ in Campton Hills, they would hear a big difference between Li’s class and other classes.
Li’s instruction, songs and educational exercises are spoken entirely in Mandarin Chinese.
Since 2010, the two local boys – and a third student not in class this day – have learned the language from Li, an instructor with Language Stars, a Chicago-based private foreign language instruction school.
Every aspect of the class is conducted in full and complete immersion in the foreign language, from the moment Li greets them in the hall with a happy “Ni hao” – Mandarin Chinese for “hello” – to the time they leave.
“It’s the best way for them to learn a new language,” said Heather Hellmuth, assistant director for Language Stars, who oversees the St. Charles classes and others scattered in Chicago’s western and northwestern suburbs. “It’s the same way they learned English, after all.”
Although such classes might seem different, for a growing number of parents and children in the Tri-Cities and elsewhere in the country the classes are growing from a novelty to a staple of a child’s education.
Historically, most English-speaking Americans have learned a second language in a traditional fashion through classes offered in a formal school setting, typically beginning in middle or high school.
But more evidence indicates the best time to pick up a language is at a much, much earlier age.
“Young children are just such sponges,” said Martha Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “They have such a capacity to learn, even multiple languages at one time.”
Abbott said the research indicates young children who learn multiple languages generally perform better in school because the brain has increased its ability to learn.
“The brain just gets a much better workout,” Abbott said.
At the same time, those learning a language earlier in life speak a language more “like a native,” Abbott said.
Many parents are seeking a head start for their children in an increasingly global economy in which the ability to speak more than one language has become more than a luxury, she said.
Abbott said a number of public school systems nationwide offer foreign language instruction to elementary school students.
But the number of public schools offering such early childhood language instruction has stopped increasing and even declined in the past decade. Budget difficulties have forced many school districts to re-evaluate their academic offerings.
A survey conducted in 2008 by the Center for Applied Linguistics out of Washington, D.C., indicated 15 percent of elementary schools in the U.S. teach foreign languages.
But that number is down 9 percentage points from 1997, when 24 percent of elementary schools offered such instruction. However, the number of students enrolled in foreign language instruction programs increased nationwide by about 3 percent, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages reported.
Locally, most public school administrators in and around the Tri-Cities said their districts do not offer foreign language instruction before middle school.
In Batavia School District 101, for instance, Chief Academic Officer Brad Newkirk said schools offer Spanish and French in middle and high school. But the district this year was forced by budget constraints to eliminate an elementary school-level Spanish language program.
St. Charles School District 303 is the lone exception among local public school systems, offering Spanish and French instruction to students at Richmond Intermediate School beginning in third grade.
The lack of public instruction has prompted some parents to pay what is necessary to help their children learn in-demand foreign languages such as Spanish, French and Mandarin Chinese through private language programs and private preschools.
Registration at some private programs can carry annual costs of several hundred dollars for weekly classes to several thousand dollars for full bilingual preschool.
Hellmuth said Language Stars offers instruction to about 7,000 students in the Chicago area and, recently, in Washington, D.C., with the vast majority in Chicago’s suburbs.
The company brought its program to St. Charles two years ago; it now offers classes two days a week in Spanish and Chinese Mandarin in a temporary space at the church.
She said demand is growing for the instruction.
Ken Fanale of Geneva, whose son, Landon, has been enrolled in the Language Stars Chinese Mandarin program since 2010, admits the instruction does not come cheap. But he said the expense is justified because he expects it will pay dividends later.
“To me, it’s just one of the sacrifices we make for him,” Fanale said. “We could spend this on a vacation or something else, but this is what we chose. Maybe it will help him get a job or help him out in some other way I can’t think of.
“But it seems to me this will have more of a lasting effect than tumbling.”
Teaching foreign languages
Listed below are the percentages of each language offered by public and private elementary schools in the U.S. that offered a foreign language:
1. Spanish – 88 percent in 2008, up from 79 percent in 1997
2. French – 11 percent in 2008, down from 27 percent in 1997
3. Latin – 6 percent in 2008, up from 3 percent in 1997
4. Chinese – 3 percent in 2008, up from 0.3 percent in 1997
5. German – 2 percent in 2008, down from 5 percent in 1997
Source: Foreign Language Teaching in U.S. Schools report, Center for Applied Linguistics