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The language code

Jean-Loup Combemale with students at Middleburg’s Hill School Photo Courtesy/Len Shapiro
As a veteran teacher of high-school French and Spanish at local independent schools, Jean-Loup Combemale often was frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm for learning a new language among many of his students, including some of the best and brightest.

“It was often difficult to teach students at the high school level,” he said, “because they were either burned out on language they had already studied in elementary or middle school or they were convinced language was a weird and difficult undertaking, too mysterious to take seriously.”

After he retired, he had a chance to do something about it. And over the last seven years, fourth and fifth grade students in particular at Middleburg’s Hill School clearly have been reaping the benefits of some cutting edge work.

Serving as a consultant and part-time Hill teacher, he and Hill’s Academic Dean Hunt Lyman developed an innovative language program for those two grades. Lyman, who has been affiliated with Hill for 30 years, earned his doctorate in English Education from the University of Virginia and has a longstanding interest and expertise in how children learn and process language.

The concept, Combemale said, was “to teach language, not a language. It was something we could do. What children need is someone to open them up to how to approach the study of language as a whole, not so much a specific language.”

While Hill students up to third grade receive instruction in and exposure to Spanish, in fourth and fifth grades they get a far different approach in language fundamental classes which are conducted two periods a week.

“ Language Fundamentals is more a study of linguistics,” Lyman notes. “We want our students to recognize that language is both doable and enjoyable.
In the fourth grade course which I teach, we study word roots and their English derivatives as well as non-verbal communication, sign language, how alphabets are formed. The course culminates with the students creating their own alphabet and then using that alphabet to write.”

In the fifth grade program, taught by Jill Beifuss, the students’ major project is creating their own language. They learn how to develop tenses, pronouns, plurals, inflection, gender, “all the concepts that can be difficult,” Lyman said. “We’re trying to show the children the basis for languages. They write and speak in their language and in codes. These activities give the students a sense of control. It’s exciting.”

Combemale, a native of France who graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, served 25 years in the U.S. Navy and speaks four languages - some of which he learned as an adult. He also sees other advantages in the fourth and fifth grade program.

“We don’t usually teach people how to understand why we have a language,” he said. “What are the building blocks of language? And if you have the building blocks at a young age, they will stay with you. I believe when students begin the formal study of a foreign language, they will have a better understanding of how that language was put together.”

Hill School Trustee Mike Howland, who admitted that he struggled to learn languages when he was in middle and high school, said he was “blown away” by Hill’s fourth and fifth grade program during an informational session at a recent board retreat.

A retired diplomat who also spent 444 days as a hostage during the Iranian crisis in 1979, he learned several languages as an adult during his career overseas. Howland said he was very much in favor of the school’s novel approach.

“For a school to offer these courses at this level is very impressive,” he said. “I can say from experience that teaching young children strong fundamental principles of language makes studying foreign language later, even as an adult, much more accessible. They need that structure. They need those fundamentals.”

Hill has a strong Latin program in grades six, seven and eight, with a number of National Latin Exam winners over the years. Virtually all Hill students who elect to study Latin in high school place into Latin 2. Those who pursue a modern language report that their study of Latin served them well.

In seventh and eighth grades Hill also offers other foreign language options, using current computer technology for anyone interested in pursuing another language – French, Spanish, German, Italian and Chinese.

Again, both Lyman and Combemale said, the building blocks from students’ fourth and fifth grade work makes them prepared – and often enthusiastic – about learning a new language.

In years past, students used the popular Rosetta Stone programs to help teach those languages, but recently Hill went in a different direction. The school now utilizes the Middlebury Interactive System developed by Middlebury College in Vermont, one of the nation’s leading centers of foreign language instruction.

“It’s a little more organized,” Lyman said. “Students can determine how far they want to go and there are a lot of possibilities. Middlebury has conversation cafes on line. Instructors from the school have virtual classes and live office hours. It’s quite something.”

Earlier this year, Howland spoke at a school assembly for those two classes on codes and cryptology, one of his favorite hobbies. He showed them how to write with invisible ink (citric acid from lemons that becomes visible with heat). He told them stories about the Underground Railroad, with codes on quilts hanging out to dry to warn runaway slaves about lurking danger.

Not long after his presentation, the students wrote him thank-you notes. In their own codes, of course, a language they could call their very own thanks to Hill’s fourth and fifth grade program.


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