A Carousel of Languages

Head of Middle School Susan Palmer writes about Greenhill’s fifth grade language program.

In mid-November just before Thanksgiving, I observed a fifth grade class conducted solely in Mandarin Chinese. This week, those students are acting out skits in Spanish as they play the parts of various animals. And later in the spring, those very same students will begin to master Latin vocabulary connected to the lives of Roman gods and goddesses.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the Fifth Grade Language Carousel! At Greenhill, fifth grade students learn what it means to learn a language. They receive one trimester each of Mandarin Chinese, Latin, and Spanish instruction, and they have the opportunity to develop a practical understanding of the linguistic and cultural elements of each. They develop learning strategies that will allow them to be successful language students no matter what language they choose to pursue after fifth grade.

When I talk to the fifth graders, I hear comments such as, “I never dreamed I could learn so much Chinese in only a trimester!” and “We made a video all in Spanish, and I was the tiger,” and “Latin is so organized. It really makes sense to me.” Our students are enthusiastic about the Carousel. They like the variety across the three trimesters, and they respond to the novelty of a fresh start three different times. They are amazed at their own ability to quickly become immersed into the culture of the languages, and they are uniformly proud of their ability to rise to three distinct challenges.

By the third trimester, our students are able to make connections between languages and language learning – they find similarities and identify differences. Their minds are open to connections across cultures, and they are thinking on an abstract and sophisticated level. Study skills take the forefront, too, as the students can now identify strategies appropriate for specific language learning.

Near the end of the fifth grade year, students and their parents choose Latin, Chinese, or Spanish as their language of choice for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. Three solid years of language learning in Middle School then allows the students the option of taking two languages in Upper School – the language they chose after the Carousel year and a new language as a high school student. An additional benefit is that, after fifth grade, the students know and understand what their peers in other language classes are doing.

The Fifth Grade Language Carousel is just one element of the positive learning environment in the strong fifth grade program. The language choice at the end of fifth grade is an educated choice that leads to great motivation and excitement about language learning. All of this rationale aside, though, I must stress that the most common descriptor used by students and teachers to describe the Fifth Grade Language Carousel is “fun.” That says it all.

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