WHEN the opening bell rang at the 55th Street School in Milwaukee one day last week, Linda Martinez greeted her kindergarten class with the words, ”Como esta usted?”

Jonette Pickett and the 21 other 5-year-olds replied in unison, ”Muy bien, gracias,” and when the teacher read out their names each one replied, ”Presente.” Then they picked up their ”lapices” and went to work.

Jonette and his classmates all come from English-speaking homes, but they are going to school in Spanish as part of a special program designed to make them thoroughly bilingual by sixth grade.

Immersion programs like the one at the 55th Street School are the exception, but they are indicative of a growing interest among parents, teachers and researchers across the country in starting to teach foreign languages at the primary school level.

At the William L. Buck School in Valley Stream, L.I., students begin Spanish and French in the second grade because, as Diana Pirrone, the principal, puts it, ”the younger they are, the less inhibited they are about picking up a second language.”

Three years ago, the 21 elementary schools in District 19 in Brooklyn began requiring all students to study Spanish, starting in kindergarten; such programs are likely to increase considerably in the near future in New York State. In July the Board of Regents gave preliminary approval to a plan to require all students in the state to pass a language proficiency test in the ninth grade and to require students seeking a more rigorous Regents high school diploma both to pass an examination and complete a three-year sequence of courses.

The amount of foreign language study in American schools has varied widely over the years. The high point came in 1915, when 36 percent of high school students were enrolled in foreign language courses, but by 1955 this figure was down to 20 percent, according to the President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies.

A resurgence of interest in foreign language study following the launching of the first Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957, but by 1980 the figure was down to a low of 15 percent. In its 1979 report, the commission declared that ”our gross national inadequacy in foreign language skills has become a serious and growing liability” that undermines the ability of the United States to communicate and compete economically with other nations.

Figures Are Hard to Find

Data on foreign language instruction below the high school level are sparse. Nancy Rhodes, coordinator of such programs for the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, sampled such schools in New York and seven other large industrial states, and found that fewer than one in five had any language programs.

Paul Dammer of the State Education Department said that only 39 of New York’s 729 local school districts teach foreign languages before high school, and of those, 15 are in New York City. Six of 169 school districts in Connecticut offer such instruction; no figures are available for New Jersey.

Schools that offer such programs take several different approaches, beginning with ”exploratory” programs in which regular classroom teachers teach basic vocabulary in several tongues as a way of giving students a sense that people in different countries talk in different ways.

The most common approach is the one known as FLES, or Foreign Language in Elementary Schools. Under such programs, Spanish, French or some other foreign language becomes a regular subject alongside others like mathematics and reading.

Telephones Labeled in Spanish

In District 19 in Brooklyn, for example, students take three full periods of Spanish a week, and telephones and other objects around the school buildings are labeled with their Spanish words. The emphasis is entirely on speaking and listening, with the study of grammar reserved for the junior high school years, when the language is also mandatory.

”Learning to speak another language is important because we live in a polyglot society,” said Frank C. Arricale, the district’s superintendent. ”There are also practical reasons to have a second language. The bilingual secretary or the bilingual truck driver will get more money than monolingual ones.”

The most ambitious approach of all is the immersion technique, in which English-speaking students study their regular subjects in a foreign language. In such classrooms, students do not study the second language as such, but pick it up in the course of doing their regular work.

The Spanish immersion program at the 55th Street School in Milwaukee began in 1977 as part of an effort to encourage desegregation by establishing schools with special programs with broad appeal. Programs are also offered in French and German.

Helena Anderson, the foreign language specialist for Milwaukee schools, explained that that children in kindergarten and first grade do most of their learning in the second language and that the proportion of English is then increased until, by the sixth grade, they are doing half their work in each language.

Most primary school language programs are started because of a belief that the knowledge of foreign languages is becoming more important, both for individuals and the country as a whole, and that the earlier a child starts, the easier it is to learn a foreign language.

Benefits Beyond the Language

In recent years, however, some researchers and teachers have also begun to argue that foreign language instruction enhances not only the learning of English but overall academic achievement.

Mr. Arricale described his language program as a major factor in a recent rise in reading test scores in District 19. ”By speaking another language, you in effect put language under a microscope,” he said. ”You see English from a different perspective and get a sense of language per se.”

Much of the formal research in this area has been done in Canada, where bilingualism is a major political and educational issue as well as a practical necessity for millions of people.

Wallace E. Lambert, a professor of psychology at McGill University in Montreal, has conducted numerous studies using control groups and concluded that learning a foreign language, especially through the immersion method, ”enhances creativity and overall cognitive ability.”

In one study, he found that bilingual 10-year-olds showed higher average I.Q.’s than those who knew only one language. He has also found that when such factors as I.Q. and socioeconomic status were held constant, students who had studied a foreign language did better on reading tests, in part because they had a ”deeper grasp of vocabulary.”

Mr. Lambert has also been working with a ”double immersion” program in which a group of Jewish children from English-speaking homes take half their courses in Hebrew and half in French. ”We’ve carried them up to the seventh and eighth grades and found that they do just as well or better in math and science as the control group,” he commented.

The McGill researcher speculated that a foreign language enhances the learning of other subjects because it forces students to translate concepts in their minds and thus to view them from more than one perspective. ”If you see adjectives in front of nouns in English and after nouns in French, then you get a better sense of adjectiveness,” he explained.

Teachers Are Hard to Find

Educators seeking to introduce foreign languages at the elementary school level face several problems, beginning with that of finding teachers to do it. ”A lot of efforts in the 60’s to use regular classroom teachers didn’t work out,” said C. Edward Scebold, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

The plan tentatively approved by the Board of Regents would address this issue by requiring all new elementary schoolteachers to be qualified in foreign language instruction, beginning with those who graduate from college in 1995.

Even the most vigorous advocates of early foreign language instruction warn that it has limitations. Mr. Scebold noted that while primary schoolchildren could easily learn to speak and understand foreign tongues, there was little use in trying to teach them grammar. Moreover, he said, if they do not continue to use and learn the language in junior high school, the time is probably better spent on other topics. ”Short spurts of instruction are not terribly valuable,” he said.

Students who have been through early foreign language courses seem to like them. Mara Bach, a 9-year-old at the 55th Street School who has been studying Spanish for four years, was particularly enthusiastic. ”Spanish isn’t hard,” she said, ”and you know what? I can talk to my Dad in Spanish, and my big sister and Mom can’t understand. That’s really fun.”

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