wpostServer: http://css.washingtonpost.com/wpost

The Post Most: Local

Answer Sheet
Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 06/09/2011

The foreign language dilemma: Sí or oui?

--

This was written by parent of two and freelance writer Lurdes Abruscato, who grew up in Montgomery County and now lives in Howard County with her family.

By Lurdes Abruscato

Our household is locked in battle over a seemingly mindless decision: Should our middle schooler take Spanish or French next year when the foreign-language program kicks in for his grade level? At first glance, it should be easy enough to decide – only two choices, really (actually three if you add “don’t take a language” to the options), but not so fast, amigos.

My spouse initially questioned whether to even encourage the foreign-language route. Why push for extra homework, more vocabulary, the stresses of a complex subject, layered onto an already difficult school and activities load?

But for me, “no languages” isn’t an option. Growing up, most everyone I knew signed up for a foreign language in middle school. It was either that or you took something like … basket weaving. Ok, I’m being snide. But let’s face it – when you live in a diverse, multicultural, bedroom community to the nation’s capital, taking a foreign language is generally a given. As a child of immigrants, I grew up bilingual and took another language in the Maryland middle- and high-school levels with nary a problem. In fact, I feel I benefitted greatly from it. And I’m not alone in that opinion.

Scores of studies and articles tout the advantages of foreign-language studies, especially at a young age. Peruse the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages’ web site and you’ll find 11 studies alone linking foreign-language learning and higher academic achievement, including better SAT scores, memory skills, cognitive abilities and so on.

Interestingly, learning a foreign language makes you more proficient in your native tongue. Try this little exercise: Ask a typical middle schooler to conjugate a verb, any verb. Then ask a student of a foreign language. The first might know what you’re talking about, but the latter definitely will as that’s the backbone of any foreign-language program.

We’ve heard the admonitions about being behind other countries before, but they bear mentioning again. “Europe and Asia require their students to take numerous language courses and achieve high levels of proficiency. How can U.S. students compete effectively if they don’t have the same language tools?” notes Ruta Couet, president of the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages. Couet pointed me toward a string of other findings, including data from a January 2011 Education Week article indicating 21 European Union countries require nine years of language study.

Add to the mix immigration, globalization, interweaving world economies, overseas outsourcing, and frankly, even terrorism, and these beg for a generation that’s well-versed in other cultures, customs, and, yes, languages. Even the CIA has delved into the fray — in December 2010 director Leon Panetta urged the American education system to better commit to mastering foreign languages, saying it’s not something “simply nice to have,” rather it’s “crucial.”

Lost in Translation

Of course, committing to foreign language studies is harder than it sounds, whether it’s at the family, local, state or national level. Certainly the most obvious counter-argument to pushing for second-language learning is that English is the lingua franca of the world. Most travelers will tell you they can get by just fine as an English-only speaker, pretty much anywhere.

Sure, but what’s being lost during those broken conversations and international hand gestures? “I think monolinguals don’t realize the doors that are opened [with a second language],” says Couet.

Accuracy, implications, perceptions, details and nuances are, indeed, lost in translation. True fluency in a second language is critical for business negotiators, law enforcement officials and medical professionals, to name a few, she adds.

The other challenge is attaining that fluency. Shocker: Your child will not become conversant during the average two years of high-school Spanish. Couet and her counterparts emphasize the sequence of instruction (i.e., as soon as it’s available, take a language and stick with it as long as possible). “Language is a function of time,” she explains, and only time put into the language will contribute to any level of proficiency.

Indeed, students themselves seem to get that. “]Studying a language in school] is not the same as being in the culture,” concurs Brielle Pitney, a 16-year Howard County junior who is into her fifth year of Spanish, including two years in middle and three in high school. “The fact that there are breaks over the summer, you have to re-learn a lot at the beginning of every year,” she adds.

She ranks herself as a “basic” speaker: understanding the language better than being able to speak it. Nevertheless, she says the “investment of time” is worth it, whether it’s to get by in another country, obtain advanced placement credit in her senior year, or set herself apart on college applications.

By the Numbers

But what to do if your school system doesn’t offer the language component at the elementary level, or even later? Lucky for Maryland and greater-metropolitan residents, foreign-language instruction in public schools is strong, improving, and in several cases, pioneering, says Susan Spinnato, specialist for world languages at the Maryland State Department of Education.

According to 2009-2010 enrollment figures from Maryland’s Education Department, 12.9 percent of all Maryland public elementary school students took some type of a world-language program. Not taking into account private schools, that means several of the state’s elementary schools offered foreign-language programs, including such standouts as Chinese immersion (in both Montgomery and Baltimore City). Other Maryland elementary school language achievements:

• 1,452 elementary students in Prince George’s County were enrolled in French immersion;

• 3,979 Washington County students took Spanish, plus 334 were in Spanish immersion; and

• 14 lucky Baltimore City elementary students were in a Russian immersion program.

The numbers, naturally, increase at the middle-school level. More than 76,000 Maryland middle schoolers took some form of language, or about 41.6 percent of total enrolled students, whether as a standalone language, within an immersion program or as part of a foreign language exploratory (FLEX) curriculum (FLEX is usually taught in English with more of a focus on culture vs. fluency). Garrett County middle schools, for example, have no stand-alone language classes; however, 100 percent of its students were enrolled in a world language exploratory program. Maryland’s exploratory models vary, explains Spinnato: “They may be rotated in with specials, or rotated in with one semester … All things are on the table in exploratory,” she says.

Maryland public high schools do even better. A little more than half of all enrolled students participated in a foreign language last year. Plus, the offerings increase from the traditional French and Spanish, with Arabic, Greek, Latin, German and Japanese scattered throughout the state.

Overall, Maryland’s foreign-language efforts appear solid, even though it’s hard to compare state-to-state figures since each state tracks different enrollment/language numbers. Wisconsin, for example, ranks highest for overall foreign-language programs, but that’s based on students in grades 6-12 only; New York is exceptional with a 29.59 percent foreign-language enrollment across all grade levels, Spinnato says.

Like all education dilemmas, the issue is the lack of consistency from teacher-to-teacher, school-to-school, county-to-county and state-to-state. My county of residence, Howard, tops the figures with a whopping 67.9 percent of total students enrolled in a world language in 2009-2010.

Great, right? But wait, out of 21,316 enrolled elementary school students, not one took a language because the county doesn’t offer an elementary-language program during the school day.

“As you can tell by looking [at the numbers], we have a great deal of students at the high-school level … Where we need improvement is in elementary … If we can ratchet our elementary [world-language programs] … we’ll be number one in world languages too,” says Spinnato.

The trick is to expand beyond a handful of elementary school magnet programs with immersion classes; encourage more creative and successful after-school language classes offered by independent companies; and diversify the number of foreign-language offerings at the middle- and high-school levels. “This is something that does have a price tag,” Spinnato says.

Case in point: Howard County’s Board of Education just approved its 2012 operating budget request in February of $681 million, which includes “planning money for an elementary World Language Program.”

La Plume de ma Tante …

Even if my family wasn’t already convinced about pursuing a language, one final fact did the trick.

Maryland high school graduation requirements mandate two credits of foreign-language study (or a complex matrix of other non-language alternatives). Many colleges subsequently require two years of foreign-language study for admission, according to the College Board. The University of Maryland does. Most Ivy League schools require four years and prefer it in the same language to demonstrate proficiency and continuity. Point taken.

So, back to the original dilemma: French or Spanish? As parents, we approached it from the practical perspective, rooting for the language that’s most spoken in our area.

According to the 2010 Census Bureau figures, Hispanics make up 7.2 percent of the Howard County population and 15.8 percent of the state of Maryland. Over the last 10 years, Maryland’s largest population increase was in the Hispanic category, to 241,715 people or a whopping growth of 106.5 percent. Then it’s se habla español!

But wait. Researching the world’s most highly spoken languages altered our perspective on the stats. Depending on what information you’re looking at, the top four slots alternate amongst Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindi and Spanish. Though French never makes it to the top of these lists, it ranks highest in the category of “secondary speakers,” or people who speak it as a second language.

And a prominent and oft-quoted 1997 study by George Weber ranked the most “influential” languages worldwide based on a complex calculation of several factors as:

1. English

2. French

3. Spanish

4. Russian

5. Arabic

Hmm, maybe French trumps Spanish then? “We want students to have an international perspective and the best way is to learn another language. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter which language it is, but that they get that cross-cultural perspective,” says Spinnato.

Ultimately, it appears that it doesn’t matter which language my middle schooler pursues, rather, it needs to be one he sticks with and something he’s interested in: “I think if we leave it in the academic arena, that’s been the problem,” says Couet. “We have to show students the practical applications of languages … We’ve been teaching languages in a very topical fashion rather than connecting it to real use.”

Or, as my 15-year-old nephew, Gianni Damaia, a Sarasota freshman with three years of Spanish already under his belt, so aptly put it: “Unless the teacher is physically abusing them, just get the credits in foreign language and move on. Besides, there are no better teachers [of other languages] than the members in our family. That ought to strike a passion in them.” Touché.

-0-

Follow The Answer Sheet every day by bookmarking http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet. And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page. Bookmark it!

By  |  04:00 AM ET, 06/09/2011

 
Read what others are saying
     

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company