Many adults have trouble recalling even basic phrases from years of high school foreign language classes. Now educators say teaching younger children a second language could be the key to using those skills later in life.
Recent studies show that fewer than one in one hundred students has learned to speak a foreign language 'very well' from their experience in high school. If that is the case, what is the point of spending hours learning vocabulary and studying word tenses?
"Having real ability to understand and communicate in a world language will make students competitive in any endeavor that he or she chooses professionally," said Barry Keith, a french teacher at Monticello High School.
Recruiters say for a job candidate being multi-lingual is generally seen as a plus. Economists at MIT put that to the test and followed 9,000 American college graduates. Those who spoke a second language earned only two percent more than those who did not.
Some educators argue the problem is that students are learning a second language too late in life.
"A lot of us learned a second language in high school and many of us can repeat hardly any of it. Yet people who learn a second language earlier, it sticks with them forever," said Lisa Jones, principal of Cale Elementary School in Albemarle County.
Research shows that a child's brain is most primed to learn multiple languages from the time they are nine months to seven years old. At Cale Elementary students are being taught to speak Spanish as early as kindergarten.
"I believe monolinguism is going to be the modern illiteracy of the 21st century," said Jones. "We are trying to prepare children for a global economy and the ability to have a second language primes kids for a third."
At Cale, students are learning beyond basic vocabulary. Kindergartners learning how to add are taught in Spanish, and first graders learn calendar skills through singing songs in Spanish.
"Our job is to teach kids to be literate, and being literate isn't just about reading and writing; it's about language. It's about the acquiring language and the ability to communicate," Jones said.
Currently kindergartner and first graders at Cale spend up to 180 minutes each week learning in Spanish. Jones hopes next year to begin an immersion program for second graders, where 50 percent of the school day will be in Spanish, and 50 percent in English. The goal is that by the end of the fifth grade, the students will be fluent.
"They understand their teacher, the questions she is asking, and many times they answer her back in very proficient Spanish, even in first grade. It's pretty amazing to watch how quickly they pick it up," said Jones.
The Albemarle County School Board believes so strongly in Cale's World Languages Program, it spends roughly $35,000 dollars per year on it. The program was one of two the school board members said they absolutely would not cut despite the recent multi-million dollar budget short fall.