As Foreign-Language Enrollments Expand, Interest Growing in Non-Western Tongues

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When the superintendent of schools in Sharon, Mass., decided this spring to revamp his district's foreign-language program, he drew some conclusions being reached by a growing number of his colleagues.

The traditional course offerings--French, Spanish, and German--would no longer be sufficient in a changing world, Superintendent John Maloney reasoned. So he proposed adding courses in Chinese and Russian--and dropping the less-popular French offering.

"We're too small to teach all languages," the superintendent said then. "We have to make some choices."

Not many school systems are dropping what traditionally has been the world's "diplomatic language" in favor of Chinese. But a surprising number are adding coursework in the more exotic and difficult Eastern tongues.

They have been influenced by the same economic and political considerations Mr. Maloney mulled before making his decision.

As he put it, "We have to consider the influence Russia has militarily; we have to recognize their importance as a nation."

Similarly, he said, "the Chinese importance in the Pacific Rim" will make knowledge of that language more and more essential in the 21st century.

Sharon was unable to implement its superintendent's plan this year--but not because of any public resistance to it. Voters there refused to override a property-tax limitation, an action that would have enabled the school system to hire additional teachers.

But elsewhere, the movement toward offering less-commonly-taught languages has taken root amid what experts call a "skyrocketing" interest in foreign languages generally.

And it has done so, the experts add, despite deep pedagogical problems that spring from the languages' difficulty and a scarcity of adequate teaching resources.

Some 300 U.S. schools now have programs in Japanese, compared with only a handful teaching the subject less than a decade ago. And smaller numbers have added programs in Chinese, Russian, Korean, Arabic, and other languages.

Because this growth in interest has outstripped the supply of qualified teachers and instructional materials, schools have gone to unusual lengths--including traveling to Asia to recruit teachers--to overcome the obstacles.

In some areas, the obstacles have proven too formidable. And many people, including potential employers, do not yet buy the notion that high-school-level proficiency in an Asian language is a prerequisite for future jobs.

But C. Edward Scebold, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Inc., predicts that these attitudes will change, and that the non-Western languages will continue to spread.

"We have an obligation to deal with the world we are living in," he says. "We can't ignore Asian languages."

A Language 'Explosion'

The interest in more exotic tongues comes at a time when enrollments in nearly all foreign languages are surging.

The last survey of foreign-language enrollments, conducted by the council in 1985, showed that 4.5 million students in grades 7-12--one quarter of all students in those grades--were enrolled in a language course. That is about 1 million more than were enrolled in 1982.

Mr. Scebold suggests that increased graduation and college-entrance requirements, together with rising interest in international studies, have boosted enrollments substantially since then.

In several states, such as Virginia and New York, half of all K-12 students are studying a foreign language, he notes.

Recent world events that have focused new attention on the Soviet Union, China, and Japan have also fueled interest in the less-commonly-taught languages, he and others say.

The Russian program at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Montgomery County, Md., for example,4has "exploded" since students at the school participated in a new exchange program with a Soviet school, according to Miriam Met, the county's coordinator of foreign languages.

Unlike the Sharon, Mass., plan, most schools in fact have added the less-commonly-taught languages to the curriculum, rather than replacing an existing course with them. The only major language that appears to have lost popularity, observers note, has been German, once the choice of science students.

"While German used to be taken by science-oriented people," says Charles W. Stansfield, director of the U.S. Education Department's eric clearinghouse on languages and linguistics, "the feeling now is, if something worthwhile is not done in English, it will be translated into English."

The continued growth of foreign-language instruction received a major push last winter from the National Governors' Association. In a report issued in February, the nga's task force on international education recommended increasing foreign-language requirements for entry into colleges and universities; expanding opportunities for language study in summer months and after school; and providing second-language instruction in elementary schools.

"More than ever before," Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey wrote in a foreward to the nga report, "our national security--indeed, world stability as a whole--depends upon our understanding of and communication with other countries."

State Initiatives

But the economic side of the foreign-relations equation has been perhaps the greatest spur to the creation of the new programs, particularly those devoted to Japanese.

In Indiana, for example, former Gov. Robert D. Orr persuaded the legislature in 1987 to add to its massive school-reform package $260,000 for a new program to train teachers in Japanese and Chinese.

"Governor Orr was interested in developing trade with Japan and in bringing in Japanese companies," explains Walter Bartz, a foreign-language consultant in the state department of education.

Since the program began, teachers from 15 districts have studied at Earlham College and Ball State University and been certified as Japanese- and Chinese-language instructors.

The legislature this year agreed to extend the program for another two years, but rejected the department's request to expand it to include Korean and Russian.

In Wisconsin, an extensive Japanese-education program got under way in 1984, when Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert J. Grover established a task force of administrators, lawmakers, and business leaders to recommend ways to stimulate the teaching of the subject.

Based on that panel's proposals, the state--using federal funds--pro8vided grants to 10 schools that have started Japanese programs. (See Education Week, Dec. 17, 1986.)

"I'm happy to say," adds Frank M. Gittner, supervisor of foreign-language education in the state department of education, "that the schools that were given seed money continued the programs with local funding."

'Fits and Starts'

Many local administrators, including Mr. Maloney of Sharon, Mass., have opted to create new programs on their own.

Leonard D. Paul, principal of Bonanza High School in Las Vegas, Nev., where the Japanese presence is felt not only in tourism but through their ownership of several hotels, added classes in Japanese after learning that one of his Spanish teachers also knew that language.

"We were taking advantage of the teacher's ability, of the opportunity to widen our language programs,and of the chance to provide career opportunities for students," he says.

Some 60 other schools around the country are offering Chinese as part of their participation in a $2.8-million Chinese-education program funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. They receive a curriculum guide and teacher training in summer workshops.

The schools in the Dodge program are privy to shared information, by virtue of being part of a national network. But local initiatives often run the risk of repeating others' mistakes, according to David Arlington, specialist for humanities and foreign languages in the Oregon Department of Education.

Some 44 Japanese-language programs have sprung up in Oregon since 1980, Mr. Arlington says.

"There have been a lot of fits and starts as the programs get going," he notes. "Nobody is quite sure what others have done that worked, or what has failed."

In other areas, proponents say that the desire to offer Japanese instruction does not necessarily translate into enrollments.

"Despite the rhetoric from the state legislature," says Fred Dobb, a foreign-language consultant in the California Department of Education, "we don't see any tremendous growth in the number of students taking Japanese."

California has fewer than 20 Japanese programs, and a smaller number of Chinese and Russian programs, Mr. Dobb notes, even though the state has a large Asian-American population and is a key Pacific trading port.

But the state is planning a major push to promote foreign-language instruction next fall, he says. All public schools will receive posters and resource materials urging the study of a second language. And the materials will emphasize, Mr. Dobb notes, the less-commonly-taught languages.

Teachers From China

But in many areas, instruction in these less-familiar tongues has spread only as fast as states and districts have been able to attract qualified teachers. People who know the languages, Mr. Stansfield of the eric center points out, usually either lack experience as teachers or can make more money as translators.

Though some have followed the Indiana example, creating teacher-training programs, many schools and districts have simply recruited teachers from Asia.

Officials from Phoenix High School in southwestern Oregon, for example, traveled to the People's Republic of China to recruit a teacher for its new Chinese-language program. When the government refused to extend that teacher's visa, school officials went back to China and found another one.

Elsewhere, Oregon officials have offered one-year teaching certificates to qualified U.S. candidates that enable them to bypass, at least temporarily, state rules for certification. The certificates do not, however, allow the teachers to acquire tenure and protection from layoffs.

In Washington State, which has the second-largest number of Japanese programs nationally, rural schools are teaching the subject via satellite television.

"It's far more desirable to have a real live teacher," says Mr. Scebold of the foreign-languages council. "But in rural areas, it's a significant problem. They can't attract teachers and can't pay the salaries."

No 'Wealth of Materials'

Even when schools can attract teachers, they often are hampered by a lack of instructional materials. Despite the recent spurt of interest in Asian languages, for example, en4rollments in these courses remain dwarfed by those of Spanish, French, and German. And major textbook publishers tend to publish materials destined for the largest possible market.

"In French, German, and Spanish, there is a wealth of beautiful materials to choose from," says Carol Bond, director of the National Center for the Improvement of Teaching Japanese Language and Culture in High Schools at the University of Illinois. "That's just not the situation in Japanese."

"Textbook publishers are reluctant," she says, "to get into something that will sell in the thousands," not the millions.

In response to the textbook shortage, some districts have tried the inadequate solution of using college-level textbooks. But, says Mr. Scebold, "you can't just take materials for higher education and use them in schools."

Others have produced their own materials. In Wisconsin, Yukio Itoh, a Japanese native who teaches both Spanish and Japanese at Franklin High School near Milwaukee, has created a textbook and audio-visual materials being used throughout the state.

Language and Culture

The introduction of the non-Western languages, with different alphabets and grammars, has also posed pedagogical problems, notes Ms. Bond of the Illinois Japanese-studies center.

"Japanese is among the most difficult languages for Americans to learn," she says. "It takes a lot more time to become proficient in Japanese than in French."

In addition to learning new words and ways of constructing sentences, she notes, students must also learn to speak in different tones to people of different social classes.

Despite these difficulties, most students who take the non-Western languages are able to perform well, says Ms. Met of Montgomery County, Md., who is president of the National Association of District Supervisors of Foreign Languages.

She admits, however, that this may be a superficial proficiency. Students at the high-school level, who are able to practice the language only with their peers, may not, she says, encounter its subtleties.

"Some students don't realize how hard [these languages] are," she asserts.

And students who take courses in the less-familiar languages, Ms. Met notes, are often language-oriented.

"Many are electing Chinese, Japanese, or Russian as an additional foreign language," she says. "They have taken French or Spanish previously."

Mr. Arlington of Oregon adds that enrollment data suggest that retention rates--another indicator of achievement--are higher for Japanese than for other languages.

But Mr. Scebold of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages warns that, while fluency is an important goal on instruction, it should not be the only goal. Equally important, he suggests, is an ability to understand another culture.

"We should not offer Russian because we are making diplomats in high school," he says. "The opportunity should be there to learn both the language and the culture."

In any event, he adds, "we don't make students fluent speakers in any language in two years in high school."

Vol. 08, Issue 38

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