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Learning Another Language

by Sharmeen Gangat, Apr 10, 2009

President Barack Obama has admitted he feels chagrined that he can't speak another language.

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"It's embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup, right?" Obama said at a town hall meeting last July.

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While campaigning for president, Obama said he thought all American students should learn another language. Now that he has taken office, though, his push for foreign language instruction has faded.

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"His [Obama's] failure to include language learning in his education policy statement is regrettable," said Bret Lovejoy, executive director of the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Foreign language education is particularly important in New York City, Lovejoy said, because of the city's role in commerce, finance, culture and entertainment.

Unilingual Nation

Judging from the numbers, foreign language education is hardly a priority in the country as a whole or in New York. One study found only 44 percent of U.S. high school students take a foreign language class. As a result, only 9 percent of Americans -- as opposed to about half of all Europeans -- speak one or more foreign languages. A 2003 report found a continuing decline in enrollments in foreign language classes across the country.

New York State calls for the learning of foreign language for both middle and high school students. They "are required two years of seat-time and one high school [language] credit before the end of ninth grade," John Carlino, executive director of New York State Association of Foreign Language Teachers, said in an email message. This means middle school students must take two years of the language -- accounting for at least one high school language credit -- before the end of ninth grade.

Learning a foreign language, however, is not a prerequisite for a standard Regents high school diploma in New York State, although students who want to earn an Advanced Regents Diploma are supposed to take one Regents examination in a language other than English.

In 2003, Carlino told the New York Post, "Middle schools are hardly complying with state requirements. They are focused more on preparing students for statewide-exam subjects than teaching them foreign languages."

At the high school-level, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), French, German, Greek (Classic and Modern), Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Urdu, Yiddish are offered somewhere in the school system, and after a decline in the teaching of Latin, reports cite a renewed interest in that language.

While the city's public schools as a whole offer an array of language choices, options at individual schools are far more limited. Last year, based on a survey of the city's high school directory, City Limits found that more than 180 city high schools only offer Spanish (in addition to English). This presents a quandary for tens of thousands of high school students who already speak Spanish fluently.

This situation exists throughout the country. Partly as a result of the limited language offerings in American schools, "only 44 percent of students study any foreign language and ... 70 percent of those learn [only] Spanish," said Barry Lowenkron, then an assistant U.S. secretary of state, in 2006.

The issue of foreign language instruction is different from bilingual education, through which most subjects are taught using two different languages. While bilingual education started as a way to teach English, an increasing number of programs include both English speakers and English language learners. The English speakers learn a foreign language, and the foreign language speakers improve their English language skills. According to a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Education, such programs "may begin as early as kindergarten, and the number of these programs has expanded from 52 in 2004-05 to 81 programs in 2008-09."

Popular Languages

Some of the impetus for foreign language education in New York City schools comes from ethnic groups who want to ensure their language plays a role in the city's education. Italian American leaders, for example, have promoted the use of Italian and in July 2008, established the Italian Language Foundation. Schools serving large Russian communities, such as Edward R. Murrow in Brooklyn, are more likely to offer Russian classes. The handful of city schools teaching Arabic tend to have substantial numbers of Arab students.

This trend has been fueled by the city's charter schools, schools that are publicly funded but privately run. Next fall, for example, a charter school offering Hebrew instruction, will open in the Mill Basin section of Brooklyn. The city already has a charter school providing classes in Greek.

Besides the support for specific languages by community leaders, government policies also play a crucial role in determining language priorities. The Bush administration focused on security-related language learning after Sept. 11, 2001, and expanded programs for teaching Arabic, Urdu and Farsi. In 2007, $8.7 million were given out in grants to school districts in 20 states, including New York, for foreign language instruction in Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi.

Competing Demands

Whatever the interest in foreign language education, obstacles exist to making it a more integral part of the school program.

One is a shortage of certified teachers, particularly in languages less frequently taught than French and Spanish. In order to be accredited, a language teacher has to have a total of 30 college credits in the language they will teach. Fluency is not enough.

Preference for specific languages widens the gap between the need and the availability of teachers in those languages as is seen in the case of Chinese. In recent years, the demand for Chinese language teachers has surged because "the number of Chinese programs, in preschool through high school, has grown by almost 200 percent since 2004," the Asia Society has reported.

Foreign languages also have been affected by other city educational priorities. For instance, the Department of Education has replaced many large schools with small ones that, because of their size, cannot present the range of course offering the huge schools did.

And, particularly at the middle-school level, as schools increasingly focus on English and math, they have less time for other classes. "There are only eight periods in the day," Barry Johnson, a bilingual social studies teacher, at IS 302 in Cypress Hills told City Limits. His school used to teach French, Italian and Russian, as well as Spanish. Today, he said, it offers no foreign language classes at all.

Then there are budget cuts. Language education might bear some of the burden of repeated, multimillion-dollar reductions. Carlino, for one, hopes not.

"Cuts to any aspect of education that would impact future generations' ability to make a life for themselves in the world would be short-sighted," said Carlino of the language teachers' association. "This could be detrimental to our nation's security."


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