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The Future of Foreign Languages

In an increasingly competitive and open world, the demand for language instruction in Chinese and Arabic is rising. Don’t let your students miss out.

By Barbara Axelson

When John Currie became superintendent of Minnesota District 196, he never dreamed the job would take him halfway around the world. But there he was last July, looking out on the spectacular Beijing skyline—and he wasn’t alone. He was one of 400 American school superintendents who spent several days touring large and small Chinese cities to discuss with local officials ways to bring the study of Chinese culture and the Mandarin language to American students. Currie is optimistic that his trip to China will reap immediate benefits. He plans on adding Chinese culture and Mandarin studies to the international studies magnet program at Diamond Path Elementary School in Apple Valley, he says. A second pilot magnet program will be set up at Glacier Hills Elementary with a fine arts and performing arts theme. “This year will be integral for putting together a plan for 2007,” said Currie. “This whole piece of the Chinese culture is an exciting addition.”

Currie’s district is on the forefront of what is likely to become a revolution in the way foreign languages are taught in the U.S., and for that matter, which languages are taught. Chinese is the most widely spoken first language in the world, according to the Asia Society, and the World Intellectual Property Organization says that by 2007, Chinese will top English as the most-used language on the Internet.

On another front, Arabic, the fastest growing spoken language of study at U.S. colleges and universities, is gaining traction in K–12 education as well, due in part to grants available from the U.S. State Department as part of the president’s National Security Language Initiative (NSLI). Both national security and economic factors are putting pressure on American educators to find ways to introduce students to these vital and difficult languages earlier and more intensively. Still, the barriers are many: The languages are difficult to learn, certified teachers are scarce, and time allotted for any language curriculum is shrinking in the face of high-stakes reading and math testing. But despite these obstacles, many districts, like Currie’s, are pushing forward, knowing that to stay competitive in the future, their students will need those languages.

Starting Young

The State Department ranks Chinese and Arabic as Category 4 languages, the most difficult to learn. On his trip to China, Currie spoke with a high school senior who knew about 4,000 characters in the Chinese language (the average for an educated person), but there are more than 50,000 Chinese characters in all. In Arabic, right-to-left cursive script, varied dialects, and pronunciation unfamiliar to Westerners make the study more challenging than the Romance languages traditionally studied in U.S. high schools and underscores the need to start exposing children to the languages at a younger age.

Virginia Rivera, principal of McCormick Elementary School in Chicago, wholeheartedly agrees. Chicago Public Schools started a Chinese program seven years ago, and Rivera believes it is making her 99 percent Latino student body more competitive. “This is one of the three top languages in the world—why wouldn’t you teach it? Think about the possibilities later on. This is a way for some of my kids to get into the top high schools in Chicago,” she says.

Rivera also believes that starting in elementary school is key. “They’re just like little sponges at this age. We’ve had delegations in from China and local politicians who are amazed at the kids’ pronunciation and how they can communicate.”

The McCormick program started out small and grew year by year. “We started the program with just the kindergarten and added another class each year,” says Rivera. Students start out with about 20 minutes a day and increase in time as they go through the grades. In kindergarten they learn through singing and finger play with a little bit of writing. By fifth grade, they’re getting instruction three days a week—both writing and conversation. And beyond the skills themselves, says Rivera, “they understand the positive side of being multilingual.”

Finding Teachers

The Chinese government has been proactive in the push to provide language instruction for K–12 students in the U.S., as is evidenced by its invitation to 400 school leaders this year. The trip was sponsored by Hanban, China’s Office of Chinese Language Council International, in partnership with the College Board, the Chinese Language Association of Secondary-Elementary Schools, and the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages and will probably go a long way toward helping U.S. educators who want to bring Chinese-language programs to their districts. Still, one of the toughest issues is finding certified teachers.

According to College Board president Gaston Caperton, 24,000 children in the U.S. are studying Chinese. CLASS indicates there are about 250 Chinese-language teachers in U.S. secondary schools. The Chinese government will send that same number to the U.S. over the next three years. Despite this progress, Asia Society director of education Michael Levine says some short-term solutions may be necessary, including alternative certification and teacher exchanges with China, to aid the long-term necessity of university-level certification programs.

Boston Public Schools’ Lu-yan Lin, program director of world languages, recently attended two teacher-to-teacher conferences sponsored by the Department of Education, one in Los Angeles and another in Washington, D.C. Lin came home both energized and daunted by the rapidly growing desire in public schools to implement Chinese-language courses. The biggest problem for those districts is the need for state certification in Mandarin Chinese.

New Jersey state officials recently met to discuss ways to streamline certification for heritage speakers. In May, Columbia University had a one-day meeting to explore what types of courses universities should offer to certify teachers for Mandarin Chinese. The group consisted of 40 to 50 practitioners, about half of them university people and the other half K–12 educators. The dialogue covered what is needed for native speakers and for nonnative speakers. Guidelines were drafted that could help other states and districts put together contingency plans, and another meeting is planned to further enhance the guidelines later this month.

Teaching Arabic

Although Arabic doesn’t have the momentum of Chinese right now, a commitment by the federal government to invest in Arabic education is increasing the number of available programs. Naila Sherman, assistant director of the Georgetown Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, cites a new Arabic Language Village program in Minnesota for students ages 8 to 18. The program is part of Concordia College’s immersion camps and was established with help from a U.S. State Department grant, part of the NSLI.

According to Dora Johnson, research associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, “There is pressure to move [Arabic] into high school and elementary schools.” One brand-new initiative through the Department of Defense funds a K–16 articulated language program through Michigan State University in Detroit and Dearborn, where there is a large Arab population to support the program. “We are in the learning stages at this point,” says a representative, “and hope to have the program up and running by fall of 2007.”

“Arabic is still pretty small though,” says Johnson. She estimates there are no more than 20 public schools that teach Arabic in the U.S.—mostly high schools. “It’s taught far more in the private sector, in Islamic schools. Public schools haven’t had much demand, although several new programs start this fall.”

As with Chinese, one of the biggest sticking points is that there are few teachers to meet the need and no accreditation programs to speak of.

That shouldn’t stop you from implementing a program, says Paula Patrick, foreign-language coordinator for Fairfax County (VA) School District. Patrick oversees Arabic programs in two district high schools, Annandale and Stuart, which have offered four levels of Arabic instruction since 1998. A decade of lobbying by Arab-American families preceded the launch, but since then the program has seen strong growth. “In this district it used to be heritage speakers, but now many more are interested in learning the language for future employment,” says Patrick. “In our district, we’re so close to D.C. that we receive many résumés from those who want to teach these languages.”

Patrick emphasizes that it’s not just national security jobs that will increasingly need Arabic speakers. The global economy will also reward those who study the language. Just taking a look at the booming economy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is evidence enough that tomorrow’s business community will be widely immersed in the Arab world. “It used to be enough to do two or three years of foreign language for college entrance, but now it’s needed for jobs.” And the demand will only increase over time, she says. “There’s a huge mountain to move here in America,” she says, but it’s up to school administrators to work together to move it. “In 20 years, many of these students will have become bi- or trilingual.” That is, she adds, if schools give them the resources they need to get there. @

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