Fairfax schools debate language instruction and its costs

Japanese teacher Yayoi Bourne works with Frank Huston and Sydney Bui at Gunston Elementary School in Lorton.
Japanese teacher Yayoi Bourne works with Frank Huston and Sydney Bui at Gunston Elementary School in Lorton. (Susan Biddle/for The Washington Post)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Fairfax County School Board took a sharp detour from America's aversion to learning foreign languages when it adopted an ambitious goal in 2006 that language instruction should start early and graduates should be able to speak two languages.

In an increasingly interconnected world, school leaders reasoned, English is insufficient to succeed at international business or diplomacy. Fairfax County, a cosmopolitan suburb near a seat of world power, where 40 percent of students hear or speak another language at home, seemed a natural place to make foreign language instruction a top priority.

Lean budget years have tested that resolve. In tough times, parents and board members are debating whether foreign language instruction, particularly in early years, is fundamental or a frill.

"It's a lovely thing to have. I would support it greatly if we had the money," said Fairfax parent Emily Slough, referring to an elementary language program that could be cut next year. "But we are down to bare bones."

Some parents support the school system's language goals but criticize the elementary programs. Others are skeptical of the foreign language emphasis, noting that English is spoken worldwide.

The questioning in Fairfax shows how deep the linguistic gulf remains between the United States, where fewer than half of middle and high school students are enrolled in a foreign language course, and many parts of Europe and East Asia, where foreign language instruction is a given.

The U.S. commitment to teaching foreign language is slowly growing, said Marty Abbott, director of education at the District-based American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. About 16 states and the District require students to complete some foreign language coursework to receive a diploma, she said. Virginia requires three years of one language or two years each of two languages to earn an advanced or college preparatory diploma, but not for a less rigorous standard diploma.

When school funding is scarce, anything apart from reading, writing and math is vulnerable. Fairfax is projecting a $176 million shortfall in next school year's budget. Potential responses include an increase in class size, and cuts to full-day kindergarten and fine arts programs such as elementary band and strings.

Language immersion programs at a dozen elementary schools and an introduction to foreign language at 31 elementary schools also are at risk. Cutting both would save $3.4 million.

School leaders say the early programs are crucial to producing a generation of bilingual students. Two or three years of high school French typically is not enough to get students beyond a beginner level, said Paula Patrick, coordinator for the county's world languages program. It takes more time to move past memorizing vocabulary lists and start communicating. Students are more likely to master a second language if they start young, she said.

Tina Meek said her family chose to move near Fox Mill Elementary school in Herndon because of its immersion program, which allows students to spend half their days studying in Japanese. Meek's mother was Japanese, but she grew up speaking English. She struggled to learn Japanese in college and later in Japan. In contrast, her daughters, in fifth and second grade, are learning easily, she said. By first grade, they were correcting her accent, she said.

Meek and Chantilly parent Sandy Knox have formed a group called Foreign Language Advocacy for Grade Schools, or FLAGS, to save the elementary programs. Knox helped bring Spanish instruction to Brookfield Elementary two years ago. The program offers a half-hour of instruction twice a week in one of seven languages. It is intended to go districtwide, but two years of tight budgets have slowed expansion; fewer than one in four elementary schools offer the course.

Knox said she was compelled by research that shows how learning a foreign language helps the brain develop and how beneficial language skills are in a global economy.

"My son will be hitting the workforce in 16 years, and I think he will be at a disadvantage if he doesn't speak another language," she said.

The language program is in its third year at Gunston Elementary School in Lorton, where a third-grade class learned about latitude and longitude in Japanese last week. The teacher asked rapid-fire questions while students strained in their seats, waving their hands in the air. They shouted answers, trying to mirror the teacher's inflection as they recited Japanese numbers and names.

They ended the class by singing a popular Japanese song about acorns.

"I love this song," said Jordan Briggman, 8. He said he would like to practice his language skills at a Japanese steakhouse and someday in Japan. He also speaks some French he learned from his mother, some Swedish he learned from his nanny and some Spanish he "picked up" from his classmates, he said.

His enthusiasm and early start with languages could take him far toward meeting the district's goal of proficiency in two languages by senior year. It's a goal about 19 percent of high school students in Fairfax meet so far, according to staff estimates.

At an October meeting, school board members discussed their progress in equipping students with language skills. Board member Judith Wilson (Braddock) said, this year, the question is "whether or not we can afford to provide students with those skills."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company