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Finding Our Way With Words

Adapting to the global age means having a voice in it. Can America's schools break the language barrier?

By Amanda Litvinov
What does it say about America that we are the only industrialized nation that routinely graduates high school students who speak only one language? Frankly, it says that if you want to talk to us—to do business with us, negotiate peace with us, learn from or teach us, or even just pal around with us—you'd better speak English. The fact that we're woefully behind in world language skills has long registered somewhere between, "Hmmm," and "Yeah, so?" on the national priority gauge. (Compare that to our panicky responses to indicators that we're not on top in math and science.)

"The norm is still either no foreign language or two years in high school," says Marty Abbott, director of Education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. The Council's most recent estimates show enrollment in foreign language programs in the United States at about 30 percent for grades 7–12, and just 5 percent for elementary students.

But the English-only-is-OK attitude may be on the way out. A series of wake-up calls relating to national security, diplomacy, and economics—for example, the scramble to find Arabic translators after 9/11 and the struggle federal agencies faced aiding the Gulf Coast's sizable Vietnamese community post-Katrina—elicited voices of concern from the business community, the Department of Defense, educators, and families, all dismayed by our collective ignorance of world languages and cultures.

These new allies join a long-standing contingent of educators and advocates who say it's high time we change our monolingual ways. They point to dozens of programs and ideas, some new and some not, that show America has not only the capacity to produce multilingual, globally aware kids, but also the responsibility. Their ideas seem to be gaining ground, especially in the past five years, according to Abbott.

That's not to say there isn't resistance.

Read a Q&A with Marty Abbott from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages

Presidential candidate Barack Obama hit on some deep-seated anxiety when he remarked in July that we should emphasize foreign language learning from an early age. True, he was applauded by the crowd in Powder Springs, Georgia, just as he was cheered on during a February Democratic debate for saying that "America's continued leadership in the world is going to [rely on] our capacity to communicate across boundaries, across borders, and that's something, frankly, where we've fallen behind."

The backlash from critics went like this: Elitist! He's ashamed of his country!

"Language is a badge of identity, the heart and soul of any culture," says Shuhan Wang, executive director of Chinese Language Initiatives at Asia Society, explaining the impulse to protect the national tongue. "But learning another language builds a bridge, because we're willing to make that effort to relate to another people."

In the very near future, making that effort will not be optional, to hear some of the nation's top economists, academics, and business leaders tell it.

Benefits of a globalized curriculum: Fu Min Qian's students will enter the workforce with a working knowledge of Mandarin Chinese.

"The U.S. will become less competitive in the global economy because of a shortage of strong foreign language and international studies programs at the elementary, high school, and college levels," the Committee for Economic Development stated plainly in a 2006 report. "Our diplomatic efforts often have been hampered by a lack of cultural awareness," the report went on to say.

The world is becoming so interrelated, if we don't teach our young other languages and cultural values, says Wang, "We are denying them access to the new world. It is just plain and simple. If we continue to view language learning as for the elite, for the "smart ones," or for the family who can afford to pay for it, we are really widening the gap."

*   *   *   *

"Wo zou lu qu shang xue," a student responds when he's asked, "How do you get to school?" I walk to school .

It's a dazzling California Friday, just two weeks until summer break, but Fu Min Qian's 10th/11th-grade Advanced Mandarin class is doing their teenage-best to settle in and review vocabulary.

"Ta kai che qu shang ban ." She drives to work. They sometimes giggle when Qian exaggerates the intonation for them; then they mimic it successfully.

Thirty years ago on this site in South Gate, Oldsmobiles and Buicks rolled off the line at the General Motors plant. What they build here now at the International Studies Learning Center (ISLC)—a public magnet school for grades 6–12 established in 2004—are global citizens. French, Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish are on the list of options at ISLC, whose students are 99 percent Hispanic, with 63 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

South Gate doesn't share the crime stats and gang activity that plague other South L.A. neighborhoods, but it's battling a disturbingly high dropout rate (the Los Angeles Times has reported the graduation rate at South Gate Senior High is between 55 and 65 percent).

That's precisely why Asia Society's International Studies Schools Network established a school here and in 12 other low-income, minority communities across the country. Foreign language programs are often among the first things cut by urban school administrators desperately adding math and reading classes to raise test scores.

Glastonbury High School's exchange programs let students learn about another culture first-hand. Above, a Glastonbury group with their Russian hosts in St. Petersburg.

"It's time to reassess what 'basic skills' really means for the 21st century," says Asia Society's Wang. Within five years, the network expects to add up to 30 more schools, all providing a globalized curriculum with language learning at its core to prepare students "for college, the changing workforce, and a lifetime of learning as 21st century global citizens."

Back in Qian's classroom there's a scramble for laptops and flash drives for what's clearly the students' favorite activity: sharing their PowerPoint presentations about their families.

"My sisters are pretty," says Sandybell Mendez in Chinese, tucking her long dark hair behind her ear.

"But I'm the prettiest!" she declares as pictures of the three, all beautiful, appear on the screen.

"Learning another language gives you self-confidence, and the teachers here really support you," she says. Like many of South Gate's students, Sandybell already speaks English and Spanish, so she is working on a third language.

Her classmate, Kimberly Vargas, plans to go to Stanford and eventually operate her own business—but, she's quick to add, that'll be after she's lived in China for a couple of years. She earned a spot on a three-week study program to China last year that not only advanced her language skills, but left her enthralled with the country.

Qian smiles when asked about the differences between his American students and those he taught math and physics in China for more than 20 years. Even with classes of more than 100 students, "you could hear a pin drop." His American students? "Much"

He came to the United States because he knew there was a need for math and science instruction, and he took up the opportunity to start up the school's Mandarin language program.

Enjoying community support and a devoted staff, ISLC will graduate its first class of seniors this spring. Each year the school has averaged a 95 percent attendance rate, and the number of student suspensions fell by more than half even as the student population more than doubled in the first three years.

"It's a special community for teachers, and of course for the students," says principal and former French and Spanish teacher Guillermina Jauregui. "You can practically see their ideas about the world growing before your eyes."

*   *   *   *

In 1957, the wakeup call was Sputnik. The flurry over America's falling behind, evidenced in the Soviets' successful satellite launch, not only marked the beginning of the space race, but resulted in numerous math and science initiatives and Russian language programs. One that still thrives today is in Glastonbury, Connecticut, a small school district that has what amounts to star status when it comes to teaching world languages.

Janet Eklund in Russia? Nope, at a church in Hartford where her students enjoy Russian cultural activities.

"We have visitors on a monthly basis come see our language program, from other states and other countries," says Rita Oleksak, the district's foreign language director. What they come to realize, she says, is that in making time for foreign language instruction, they're actually gaining an opportunity to reinforce all the other subject areas.

The best case scenario in elementary language instruction, according to experts at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, is when world language specialists are on teaching teams, and can incorporate subject matter the students are learning in other classes in their language lessons. Not only will students learn new vocabulary in the target language, but they get to work on the concepts they need to master for other classes, and yes, for high-stakes tests. That's how they do it in Glastonbury, says Oleksak: "We pre-teach, co-teach, and post-teach what's going on in the elementary classroom."

That's exactly the kind of planning behind this Chinese lesson for first-graders at Fairhill Elementary in Fairfax, Virginia: The class reads The Very Hungry Caterpillar all in Chinese (after just nine months of lessons, twice a week for 30 minutes!), then do activities using a SMART Board. The kids reason out what you get when you add three butterflies plus four butterflies: Seven, yes, but really it's practice in Chinese and math, as well as a reminder that caterpillars turn into butterflies.

They jump into immersion lessons in Glastonbury, too, with all first-graders entering a Spanish class taught entirely in the target language. In sixth grade, they have the option to switch to French; in seventh grade they can add Russian; and in ninth grade they can take on Chinese, Latin, or Ancient Greek. Foreign language is a requirement in grades one to eight, and becomes elective in high school—where an impressive 95 percent of students continue to study a language, and 30 percent study more than one.

"The fact that our students study a language from grade one not only teaches them how to learn languages, it gives them the mindset that languages are just as important as any other subject," says Janet Eklund, now in her 20th year at Glastonbury, where she's one of two Russian teachers. "When we survey [students] about whether they'll continue their language studies, I hear them say, 'Of course, why wouldn't I? I've always taken a language.'"

The school's exchange programs (to Russia, France, Spain, and now China) provide a practical incentive and lots of language practice in the weeks the Glastonbury students spend living with families overseas and hosting students from abroad in their homes and classrooms.

"Our students and their families get to explore cultural differences first-hand," says Eklund. She recalls one Glastonbury family who had a hard time convincing their Russian guest that they owned their home, so sure he was that the U.S. government had given it to them in order to host him. "Back then, the Soviets really didn't know much about how different the role of our government was from theirs," says Eklund. You don't get to have those conversations with a tourist's "Where is Red Square?" language skills.

Do Americans care whether our students learn world languages? Check out this poll.

What the teachers at Glastonbury see—and their visitors frequently comment on—is the highly developed sense of empathy their high schoolers display. And that's as promising for the prospect of world peace as for the future workforce. "All along, we're working to make them not just language proficient, but culturally aware," says Oleksak. "We always remind them that they have to learn more than just the words to relate to people from other cultures."

Eklund has heard from scores of graduates how deeply their language study affected them. "Student after student writes to say these exchanges really changed their outlook, their understanding of the world, and their plans for future studies," she says.

"One of my favorite Russian expressions is, Vek zhivi, vek uchis' : Live for a century, learn for a century. We want our students to see themselves as lifelong learners. Like the best learning, acquiring a language is a lifelong process."

*   *   *   *

Right now, districts like Glastonbury—with an articulated, sequential program spanning grades 1–12, state-of-the-art language labs, and all the support an administration could give—are the exception. Despite the many great efforts out there, like the International Studies Schools Network, such programs are still isolated.

But for every district that reports cutting languages because of the pressures of  the No Child Left Behind law, it seems another announces it's establishing an elementary language immersion school or launching a new program in Mandarin Chinese. In fact, a study by The College Board shows the number of school districts offering K–12 Chinese language programs increased from 263 to 779 between 2004 and 2008. That 200-percent growth is due in part to President Bush's 2005 National Security Language Initiative, which funds programs in languages now deemed "critical." The upside is that government is becoming more involved in promoting language study. The downside is that some districts can't support "old-school" languages, like German and French, if the grant money is only supporting Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, Russian, and Korean.

Asia Society's Shuhan Wang cautions against a "language of the month" approach for districts working to build their language programs. It's more important, she says, to build on community resources and to do what you can to make language learning real-world and relevant to them.

"There's a Chinese saying, that if three people pass by, one of them is your teacher. We learn from just about every experience we have," says Wang. "Then we make sense of it through our language."   



Asia Society offers a comprehensive advocacy site for international education. Access recent reports and papers, federal and state legislative updates, and news on education and global competition.

The Center for Applied Linguistics has resources on its Web site especially for preK-12 teachers.  The Center is currently updating its National K-12 Foreign Language Survey. Conducted every decade, the report is expected to be released in August 2009. Check out CAL ’s useful FAQ

The Committee for Economic Development pushed for improved foreign language instruction and cultural awareness in its 2006 statement “Education for Global Leadership: The Importance of International Studies and Foreign Language Education for U.S. Economic and National Security.” Our competitiveness in the global economy depends on our students’ abilities to interact in the world community.

One of the features of The Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (JNCL-NCLIS) Web site is a complete rundown of pending legislation that would affect world language instruction. That legislation includes:

  • National Foreign Language Coordination Act of 2007, to establish a national foreign language strategy, in consultation with state and local government agencies; academic sector institutions; foreign language related interest groups; business associations; industry; heritage associations; and other relevant stakeholders.
  • NEA supports the Foreign Language Education Partnership Program Act (H.R. 2111), introduced in 2007 “to provide incentives for developing and maintaining model programs of articulated foreign language learning from kindergarten through grade 12 that increase the number of American students graduating from high school with an advanced level of proficiency in at least one foreign language; and to widely disseminate information on the model programs that demonstrate success.”
  • The Foreign Language Education Expansion Act (HR 1718), introduced in March 2007, would provide additional student loan forgiveness to teachers of foreign languages.
  • Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act of 2007 (HR 1469), passed by the House in 2007, would increase funding for study in nontraditional study abroad destinations, to U.S.  students.

The Modern Language Association focuses on high school and college level foreign language instruction. A fun feature for all language learners is MLA’s interactive map showing where speakers of particular languages are concentrated in the United States.

If you’re looking for in-depth information about national policy regarding foreign languages, go to the National Foreign Language Center Web site. NFLC also administers the STARTALK summer language program for high school students and training programs for teachers of Arabic and Chinese.

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