Education Chat

Language: Mission Critical

This chat, featuring two Education Week reporters, focused on the changes facing foreign-language education in the U.S.

Language: Mission Critical

April 5, 2006

Our guests:

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, Education Week associate editor, and
Mary Ann Zehr, Education Week assistant editor. Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s chat about foreign-language education in the United States. This online discussion is part of an Education Week series, “Language: Mission Critical,” that examines the growing interest and concern about foreign-language education in American schools. We are fortunate to have the two writers of the series, Kathleen Kennedy Manzo and Mary Ann Zehr, as our guests today.

Question from Mark Schneiderman, Director of Education Policy, Software & Information Industry Association:
There appears to be a renewed emphasis, at least among national policy makers and business leaders, on foreign language education, especially in strategic languages such as Chinese and Arabic. Can our education system react quickly enough to meet this need/demand without the use of instructional software, online learning, and related technologies? To what extent is our educational system exploring those options? What are the opportunities and challenges?

Mary Ann Zehr:
The language experts I’ve interviewed are encouraged by President Bush’s announcement of a critical-needs languages initiative and request for $114 million in the fiscal 2007 budget to pay for it. But then they are quick to say that it’s still not much money, when there is such a great need to develop resources and model programs to teach critical languages. They say it will take years to develop a pipeline of fluent speakers for languages such as Arabic and Chinese. They see a great need for development of materials in less commonly-taught languages. I’m sure they welcome the use of instructional software, online learning, and related technologies as well as the publishing of language textbooks. The challenge is to find a market for those materials when so few public schools are teaching critical needs languages.

Comment from Randy Swearengin, Chairman, BA Community Foundation:
Do you know how many students can communicate (at a kindergarten level)in another foreign language after 3-5 years of K-12 instruction in American Public Schools?

If you do not know the answer, please let me help. The answer is...Viirtually Zero! Our current foreign language education system is a complete failure! Just let me know if you would like some ideas. We can make the system work!


Question from Ed Wikstrom, Undergraduate Student, Adelphi University:
As a future Spanish and French teacher, one of my main focuses is to show that learning another language is practical. I feel that one of the best ways to do that as well as an excellent way to practice the language is to have students communicate with students who live in countries where the language is primary. What resources, preferably web-based, are available to help match students up with these “pen pals”?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
The Web offers a multitude of opportunities for communicating overseas, and they include many services and resources geared to the unique needs of teachers and students. There are organizations here and abroad that link teachers with colleagues around the world and help them set up penpal exchanges between students. Of course you’ll have to research these services to determine if there are any costs and safety measures to limit the uses of any student information or exchanges to their intended purpose.

Here are a few suggestions based on a pretty basic search of the Web: Europa Pages International PenPal service--allows teachers to post queries for free and to search those that have already been submitted from teachers around Europe
“Connecting over 112,141 classrooms, 6 million students and educators in 191 countries for classroom-to-classroom projects and cross-cultural learning”

My Language Exchange
Allows you to search by multiple criteria to find suitable penpals for students.

International PenFriends Program
Based in the U.S., has 7 million members in more than 200 countries.

Question from Jennifer Wells, French Teacher, Hamilton HS:
I would like to understand why in some parts of the US, namely Indiana where I live, French is being phased out. There are 4 or 5 school corporations just in my area that has gotten rid of it because the hispanic population is so high here. Should people who want to teach French look into a different area or is it going to change in the future? Do people realize that no matter what language you learn, you are going to benefit or is that no longer fact? What do you think?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
I think you are right that no matter what language you learn you are going to benefit. In the European Union, where there are 20 official languages, there are many, many more regional and local dialects. Officials there have noted that it is important for students in those regions to maintain their proficiency in those languages. Research shows that once you learn a second language, it is easier to learn a third and fourth and more. By learning a language you are not only learning the foundations of that language, but you are learning how to learn another language--a skill that can then be applied to further language study. Some places, like Syosset public schools on Long Island, are teaching languages more broadly as a way of building students’ exposure and awareness of other languages and cultures, and, they believe, boosting achievement overall. In Syosset they teach several different languages in the elementary school, beginning with Russian in kindergarten, Mandarin in 1st grade, then French, Spanish and Italian in subsequent grades. They are not trying to make students proficient, but are using the learning experience to promote brain development and build students’ background knowledge. As far as French goes, it is still an important language internationally and many experts say that learning French will be valuable for many students. Indeed French has persisted in U.S. schools for decades, even through periods of increased attention to Russian and Japanese language programs. In this country Spanish is increasingly becoming a practical and, in some places, necessary skill. But that doesn’t mean that students should have their choices narrowed.

Question from Nick Emlen, Endangered Language Fund:
The recent interest in improving foreign language instruction is based primarily in the nation’s security interests, as a means of gaining a foothold against hostile groups. I wonder if this approach of using language as a means of leveraging influence is compatible with the more traditional foreign language teaching agenda of language as a means of mutual cooperation and understanding? Is it a dangerous precedent to conflate language pedagogy and national defense?

Mary Ann Zehr:
When I talk to teachers of Arabic, one of the languages in demand because of national security interests, they emphasize the need to use language for mutual cooperation and understanding. I asked one principal in Dearborn, Michigan, who is a native speaker of Arabic and is promoting Arabic in her school, if she would consider accepting a grant from the Department of Defense to pay for the teaching of Arabic. She said she would want to look into any grant to see what it is about before accepting it. She didn’t say she would refuse it outright. A couple of years ago I wrote about Arabic classes in Atlanta, and the school district there had accepted a grant for Arabic teaching from the Department of Defense. The Egyptian-born teacher of the Arabic classes was fine with it. At the same time, also a couple of years ago, a Dearborn, Michigan, principal told me he didn’t want to see any schools teaching Arabic so that students could go on to spy on other people. He thought K-12 schools should teach Arabic only for cross-cultural understanding.

Question from Richard J. Yanni, Director, Global Classroom Projects:
Question: Do you foresee a day when the U.S. educational system will embrace language instruction in the professional manner that the NSA, CIA, Military Service Academies, et al, have since Sputnik? If so, when and how? If not, why not?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
I think it is a good sign that some of the federal legislation proposed for improving math and science instruction also include provisions for boosting language study. Most experts agree, however, that those efforts are just a start. Many more resources and a consistent and persistent focus on language learning will be needed. Given the current pressures on the school day many elementary schools are reluctant to extend the curriculum beyond math and reading (and hopefully still social studies and science, arts, music, p.e.) But research shows that language learning is most effective with young children. There are some excellent models for infusing foreign language into the curriculum that demonstrate that intensive language instruction, beginning in elementary school, is possible. The reality is that the world is becoming more and more multilingual, and foreign language proficiency will be essential to the U.S.'s economic prosperity. The needs of a growing economy --and international competition--tend to fuel action in this country. As the British Council points out in a recent report, “English Next,” English around the globe is becoming more and more of a basic skill in non-English speaking countries. Countries with multilingual citizenries will have the edge in international business and diplomacy. But it will take efforts from various constituencies--parents, business, policymakers, and educators--to move foreign language learning up on the priority list.

Question from Craig Bachman, Foreign language student teacher, Chancellor High Sch in sposty, Va:
As a new teacher, I wonder how I can increase students wanting to participate in Spanish class, increase their motivation to orally respond. I want to at least get them to be more enthusiatic. When was the last time you suffered through Indirect Object Pronouns? Do you see my point?

Mary Ann Zehr:
I HAVE suffered through Indirect Object Pronouns and countless lessons about the use of the subjunctive mode in Spanish in my quest to learn a second language. But it’s been visiting Spanish-speaking countries or speaking with Latinos in the United States through work that has helped me to see the usefulness of learning Spanish and get motivated to improve my skills. I don’t expect your school district has the luxury of sending every child learning Spanish to Mexico for three weeks. The Internet, however, has video clips and language-learning sites that can help bring Spanish-speaking culture to the classroom. I enjoy a site, for example, that explains Spanish idioms. I also have a desk calendar that offers a Spanish idiom per day. And I read articles on the Spanish BBC Mundo Web site. Teachers are discovering these kinds of resources. In the high school Arabic classes I just visited, the teacher had youths produce hands-on projects featuring the culture of an Arabic-speaking country. She also had them practice writing short notes in Arabic, such as “Mom, I went to the park.” The students told me they learned a lot in her class.

Question from J. Crowley, Director, Warwick Career Center:
Based on college entrance requirements, all high school students planning on attending four year colleges are required to take at least two years of a language. Considering the resources expended and looking at outcomes, this process is extremely inefficient if our goal is to develop a citizenry functionally literate in the languages of all of those with whom we wish to communicate. Can the current system of having students take language courses as a requirement for college coexist with a program designed to develop large numbers of fluent world language speakers?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
Most experts agree that the current system of language study common in American high schools in ineffective and inadequate. Many of those classes aim to build only basic foundational skills, and rarely get beyond grammar and vocabulary to engage students in real conversations and other practical skills. Certainly different students are going to have differing needs and desires with regard to language study. Those motivated to undertake intensive study and with a desire to reach advanced proficiency (generally to expand their career choices) will need a much more rigorous program. Generally intensive language programs are difficult to implement and maintain in most school districts, and often require a combination of grant funding and strong commitment from teachers/administrators/parents/and students. In Portland, they have built a solid elementary school immersion program for Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and French with very few outside resources. Now they are planning on expanding the Chinese program using federal grant money. But all students can benefit from improved basic language courses, through better use of existing resources. Portland has tried to do that by promoting the importance of languages for all students, and offering more intensive and less intensive options for pursuing foreign language learning.

Question from Susie Sullivan, Senior Editor, EdTech magazine:
What role do you see technology playing in the future of foreign language education? What new ways can it enhace this education?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
One challenge facing nearly every country with regard to language learning (including the U.S.) is the shortage of language teachers. In next week’s edition of Education Week we analyze the growth in English learning overseas and the problems those countries have in recruiting native English speakers to teach the language. In the U.S. sustaining programs in critical languages, particularly Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, and Russian, is difficult due to the lack of qualified teachers. Many districts are relying on native speakers, but they don’t necessarily meet the licensure requirements. Another challenge is finding time and materials to teach these languages. Technology can ease some of these challenges. Our next series of articles highlights efforts in Mexico and Europe to use interactive technology to train teachers and supplement instruction. Many adults around the globe are already utilizing technology--software, online courses, exchanges with students in other countries--to enhance their learning.

Question from Vivian Mayol, University of Puerto Rico, assistant professor:
I believe that bilingual students could be a great source of practice to English speakers who want to learn a foreign language. Could teachers be trained to promote communication in the classroom between such students and their peers who want to learn their language? Also, is the Education Department ready to accept that languages could be taught from the elementary grades and maintained as second languages throughout the middle and high school grades? That would require more resources, however, there are bilingual students who could be trained in the universities to teach those courses. Salaries need to be competitive so they don’t go into other careers... Thank you.

Mary Ann Zehr:
One way that bilingual students are already a resource for English speakers who want to learn a foreign language is through two-way immersion programs. In such programs, children who are dominant in English and children who are dominant in another language (usually Spanish) learn both languages in the same classroom. They help to teach each other. Last year, I visited a Spanish-English two-way immersion program in a public school in Hennessey, Oklahoma. It was a challenge there for the school to find bilingual teachers, so you’re right that schools could really benefit from any efforts by universities to train bilingual people to be teachers. Besides the two-way immersion programs, I haven’t heard of many efforts by teachers of foreign language classes to link their students up with other students in the same school who grew up speaking the language they are trying to learn.

I can’t speak to what the Education Department is willing to accept regarding second-language teaching. As you know, curriculum decisions are made at the state and local level.

Question from Michelle Scott, Reading and French teacher, Perry Hall Middle School:
With NCLB and the state assessments looming, our school system is under more pressure than ever to replace foreign language teachers and classes with more Reading. Do you believe that FL learning and Reading can both be taught at the middle level, or should we replace the FL classroom with Reading and save the French for HS?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
Research has shown that the earlier students begin learning a language the easier it is for them to build proficiency. Many experts agree that studying a language for a couple of years in high school --especially if the classes are not well-taught--is not all that effective in building students practical skills.

Of course, more and more educators are realizing the importance of building students’ reading skills for tackling middle and high school content. Many reading experts say that you can do this within content areas by integrating reading skills into science, math, and social studies classes. If you want students to build language skills incrementally, there are models for doing so in a way that does not undermine other critical priorities. Unfortunately in those middle schools where many students are falling behind in their reading and math skills, much of the school day has to be devoted to getting them back on track.

Question from Sabine Reljic, doctoral student, USD-SDSU, San Diego, CA:
At which level of training should this new generation of teachers be trained? teacher-training BA, MA, or credentials pre-service; or required on-going professional development for in-service teachers?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
Teaching a foreign language generally requires advanced language skill, so most successful teachers would begin studying a language early in their academic careers. But certainly they should be learning effective instructional strategies throughout their teacher training and beyond.

There is talk in many places, both here and abroad, about the potential of training French teachers, say, to teach Chinese...or tapping Spanish teachers to also teach Arabic, and so on. This would require significant p.d., but the thinking is that once a teacher is proficient in one language, and an effective teacher of that language, they could carry those skills over to another language.

Question from Emily Blessing, Graduate Student, Kent State University:
Is there a focus being placed on curriculum geared toward certain languages over others? For example, is learning Chinese more desired than German for purposes of business and economic commuication?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
Some school districts are dropping German, even French, to make way for other languages deemed more critical. Chinese is getting a lot of attention right now, and is expected to remain a critical language for the forseeable future. Arabic and Farsi are also deemed critical, but are growing more slowly. For business and economic communication German and French are losing their value as China grows in economic strength. But that doesn’t mean they are obsolete.

Question from Teacher:
Give 3 proven approaches for a teacher to demonstrate the necessity of foreign languages when administrators, faculty, and parents have not experienced it.

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
An administrator or faculty member that went through school even a generation ago lived in a different era. Now with the potential for global communication (through increased travel, and the world opened up through the Internet and other technology) students need skills to live and thrive in a shrinking world. 1. Business needs employees prepared to work in the global marketplace... and to communicate with clients around the world.

2. The U.S. is becoming increasingly diverse ethnically and linguistically. After Hurricane Katrina aid agencies had trouble helping large numbers of residents because of a lack of volunteers with language skills.

3. Research has shown that learning a language improve cognitive function... It improves memory and analytical thinking.

Question from Jill Libnic, EL Teacher, Analy High School:
I am curious about Spanish for Spanish speakers courses. Textbooks and materials? Focus of instruction?

Mary Ann Zehr:
Ask around and you’ll find some major school textbook publishers that have produced books designed for Spanish classes for native speakers. The Center for Applied Linguistics could be a source for you in exploring courses for ‘heritage speakers,’ children who speak or hear Spanish or a language other than English at home. See Texas has an initiative in which they’ve used AP Spanish curriculum and tests at the middle school level for native speakers of Spanish.

Question from Daniel , Newton Public School:
Where can we get the qualified and sufficient Chinese Language teachers? Any Requirements?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
In Portland, where they’ve had a Chinese immersion program for the last 8 years, the district recruits native Chinese speakers living in the United States who’ve had some teaching experience. Generally they’ve taught in China and need additional coursework and training to adapt their skills to American classrooms and standards. They must also meet federal requirements for Highly Qualified teachers under NCLB. Finding more qualified teachers to expand the program could prove difficult. The long term solution is to build a corps of proficient Chinese speakers, some of whom will become teachers. In the meantime the teacher shortage is expected to hinder any plans to begin or expand Chinese programs in American schools.

Question from Giselle Lundy-Ponce, Senior Associate, AFT:
Approximately how many dual-language immersion programs are there around the country in PK-12?

Mary Ann Zehr:
The Center for Applied Linguistics keeps track of the number of dual-language immersion programs, also called two-way bilingual programs, in the nation. Last time I checked-- in Feb. 2005--the center had found 309 programs in the country, up from 30 in 1987. But California and Texas also keep track of numbers for their states. In those states, these programs are gaining in popularity.

Question from Charles Stansfield, President, Second Language Testing, Inc.:
It is interesting that now that President Bush has proposed more spending on developing our human resources in foreign languages, some policy wonks in the sciences are saying “Don’t do it.” NSF has had huge budgets since the 1960s, and some of it has gone to promote the teaching of science. Should science teachers feel threatened by increased federal interest in promoting foreign language study?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
I don’t think there is any fear that increased attention to foreign language instruction will cloud the focus on science. Science skills are always going to be essential for students. But not all students will become scientists or engineers or doctors. Some students will become linguists and translators and development consultants and security experts and international business leaders and will need moderate to advanced language skills to be successful in that work.

Question from Joe Barile, French/Spanish teacher WIndsor Locks High School, Connecticut:

How do we go about encouraging the fed gov’t to set up schools in each state, in which kids are taught their subjects in critcal languages (Arabic, Korean, Chinese, etc.)? It could start at K and go through 12, and families who send kids to these schools would still speak English at home, and perhaps receive a stipend. This would greatly increase our potential for graduates entering gov’t servise, greatly increasing our national security.

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
I noticed that you identify yourself as a French/Spanish teacher...illustrating your own passion for language. I think that the federal government’s commitment is starting to evolve.. and it is based on demands from the business sector and the national security concerns of the 21st century. Certainly a groundswell of support from taxpayers would make the point stronger. But I think mostly these efforts start from the local level when a passionate educator or committed group of parents make the case for it. Ultimately it requires local commitment and local resources. There is a grass roots consituency out there dedicated to the immersion model--a very effective approach to language learning... but not everyone sees a need for such intensive study.

Question from Jean Grice, Education Coordinator,:
What will be the critical languages in 25 years? How do we prepare (financially and academically) for the future while addressing the immediate need?

Mary Ann Zehr:
If you can predict the political and economic trends of the future, then perhaps you can tell what will be the critical languages in 25 years. Who could have predicted the terrorist attacks of 9/11 or the speed that China would have gotten involved in certain markets or the dramatic increase in the number of Latinos in the United States. All of these events have affected how educators look at languages. Even in addressing the immediate need, many educators believe public schools are woefully behind. I don’t think many educators have asked the question yet that you are asking.

Question from Ana Lomba, Director, Sueños de colores LLC:
I’m very concerned about the “language confusion” myth in early childhood. Many bilingual parents are being suggested to drop the home language. This suggestion can come from teachers, pediatricians and even early intervention specialist with no training or knowledge about bilingual development and biliteracy. Can you talk about this? Thank you.

Mary Ann Zehr:
I do think attitudes are changing in favor of more appreciation of the home language than previously. I hear in my personal life people who are now adults and grew up in immigrant homes expressing regret they didn’t learn the language of their parents. The struggle these days for bilingual parents to teach their children the heritage language seems to be more a problem of their children’s perceiving English as having more power in the society than the parents not wanting to pass it along. Time and time again I meet parents who speak to their children in the home language and the children speak back in English.

The “language confusion” myth will be turned around as more parents succeed in raising truly bilingual children. One of my friends, an American who married a Russian citizen (now also American), are doing it. She speaks to their children in English and he always speaks to them in Russian. The 5-year-old attends a local community-run Russian school on Saturdays to learn reading and writing.

Question from Mary Boyd, teacher, Oak Lawn High School:
If a teacher were going to learn a foreign language(s) which one would you recommend first. Currently I am learning Spanish.

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
If you want to learn a language to enhance your skills in working with students, it would depend on which language students and parents in your district speak.. In many places that means Spanish.

If you want to be marketable as a foreign language teacher, Chinese and Arabic teachers are going to increasingly be in demand. I am learning Spanish as well to help me better communicate with some people I write about and to better understand the Hispanic culture. While it is similar to English, I find the grammar difficult. I’m told that Chinese, while difficult in that you use different tones to give different meanings to similar words, is much more easy grammatically.

Question from Dr. Elaine Gallagher Rodriguez, English Consultant, State of Coahuila, Mexico and English Consultant to several private schools in Mexico:
Why doesn’t the USA look at models in Mexico where 2nd and 3rd languages are common? What is so “taboo” about “total Immersion”? My grandson from Maine came to Mexico to learn Spanish. AFter 1 year in 8th grade, he became so fluent that he decided to stay, and will begin his 3rd year here next August. Then he’s off to Italy to learn Italian. We can learn from mexico. Why not?

Mary Ann Zehr:
You have a good point that the United States can learn from other countries because many experts say that other countries are doing a MUCH better job of teaching foreign languages than the United States is.

I notice you are a consultant for private schools in Mexico. I just interviewed Mr. Lorenzo Gomez-Morin Fuentes, the vice minister for basic education in Mexico, for an article that will run next week as part of our EdWeek language series. While Mexico’s private schools have a tradition of turning out bilingual students, Mr. Gomez-Morin said it has been a challenge for public schools to do the same. The lack of enough trained English teachers is a problem. So even in Mexico, where, as you say, there are good models of language immersion in the private schools, it is not a simple matter to extend that opportunity to all students.

Question from Jim Whiteman, Head of Lower School, Lake Ridge Academy:
For elementary students, is the key question “Which language(s)should be taught?” or is it something else? What are the principles that should guide a school in determining what the language program should be in the elementary grades and how might that be different than the upper grades?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
I think the question is “what is the goal of the language program?” Is it to build a corps of advanced speakers incrementally from elementary through high school and college? In that case an intensive immersion type program might be in order. Is it to raise students’ awareness of and interest in the world and expose them to other cultures? Something like the Syosset program mentioned above might serve that purpose. Is it to respond to the desires of the community? Other school districts have already asked and answered these and other questions and might serve as good models for new programs.

Question from Evelyn Lorenzo, Epifanio Estrada Elementary School, Puerto Rico:
Why don´t the Department of Education in the United States encourages and supports foreign-language instruction in primary grades? I think this would encourage qualified teachers to become foreign language instructors. It also provides opportunities for inmigrants and college students to volunteer in bilingual classes.

Mary Ann Zehr:
Some educators believe the Department of Education could do more to support the teaching of foreign-language instruction in primary grades. But you have to remember that in the United States, curriculum decisions are made at the state and local levels. Unlike many countries that require the teaching of foreign-languages at the national level, the United States doesn’t have a national curriculum.

Question from Barbara Lovejoy, founder of nonprofit, Generación Floreciente:
I am a Hispanic youth advocate who is working for programs that will help close the achievement gap for Hispanics. Since dual immersion programs can help with this issue as well as honor biliteracy, what can be done to advocate for more dual immersion programs?

Mary Ann Zehr:
I’m thinking that California educators who run dual immersion programs would have insight into how to advocate for such programs. Since Proposition 227, a measure to curtail bilingual education in the state, was approved by California voters in 1998, the percentage of English-language learners in bilingual education classes in the state decreased from about 30 percent to 7 percent. Yet the number of dual immersion programs in that state is continuing to grow. Administrators of those programs have found a way to keep them going.

Question from Nancie West, Early Education Specialist - Colorado:
Research on brain development suggests that the brain is wired for languages during the early years prior to a child entering public schools. The systems serving pre-school age children are a mix of private/public and teachers often have minimal education. What ideas do you have to support bilingualism in this population?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
Many of the teachers in preschool programs already have dual language skill. In my son’s preschool he had teachers from India and Ghana and Pakistan all of whom had learned English as a second language. It’s a shame I think that most programs don’t tap these language skills in structuring language learning opportunities using the resources at hand. But it takes a commitment from the teachers and administrators and some creative thinking on how to incorporate it into the program.

Question from Dana Quist, Parent, Virginia Shuman Young Elementary School, Broward County, Florida:
In order for students to truly benefit from being multilingual, their mastery of the foreign language must be exceptional. How can we accomplish this if they don’t get daily instruction on the language?

Mary Ann Zehr:
Language experts are in agreement with you that if children are to master a foreign language, they should receive regular instruction in the language. They also argue that schools need to have well designed programs kindergarten through college that help students to build on what they know each year. That’s why many are in favor of language programs in which children learn some of their core subjects, such as math or social studies, in a foreign tongue. But such programs are few and far between in this country. The Chinese immersion program that my colleague Kathleen Kennedy Manzo recently featured is one of the few in public schools.

Question from Scott Fish, Ph.D., Associate Prof. of French, Chair Dept. of Modern Foreign Languages Augustana College, President SD chapter of the American Association of Teachers of French, National President-Elect Pi Delta Phi (National French Honor Society):
World languages that Americans currently consider “critical”, such as Chinese and Arabic, are certainly very important. History shows us, however, that times and needs change rapidly. Fifty years ago, for example, during the era of Sputnik, many felt all children needed to learn Russian and believed that by 2006 most schools would be focusing on the teaching of Russian as the primary foreign langugage. What can we do to encourage/require students at all levels to study more foreign languages, to obtain greater proficiency in their language skills, and to promote and to support ALL world languages, not one to the exclusion of others?

Mary Ann Zehr:
When it comes to less commonly-taught languages, such as Chinese or Arabic, individuals or an ethnic community have promoted the language in their local schools. They’ve made it happen, not some education plan. The largest Arabic programs in public schools, for example, are in the Detroit area and in Fairfax County schools, where there are lots of Arab-Americans who have pushed for Arabic classes. New Jersey’s department of education is trying to figure out how to promote Chinese on a statewide level, but I don’t see a statewide approach in many places. Educators have established nationally-distributed standards for less commonly-taught languages. Arabic K-12 standards are set to be pushed this spring. But the promotion of critical languages is fragmented. Schools are slow to change.

Question from Anneke Forzani, President, Language Lizard, LLC:
How many states currently REQUIRE that foreign language be taught at the elementary school level? And what do those states typically require in terms of amount of class time teaching the language? Related to this - can you recommend a ‘national’ website that provides information on each state’s foreign language requirements (or is it necessary to look up each state individually on the web)?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
Only a few require foreign language teaching in elementary schools... ONly about a dozen require foreign language credits for graduation. The National Council of State Supervisors for Languages, sponsored by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, has state reports on its website: but there haven’t been any recent surveys on this issue.

Question from Elaine Shenk, PhD Candidate, University of Iowa:
What relationship do you see between (a) the move towards increased foreign language teaching in U.S. schools and (b) the importance of recognizing/utilizing the linguistic resources of children who are already on their way to becoming bilingual, i.e. immigrant children who are native speakers of languages other than English?

Mary Ann Zehr:
The strongest link between the two that I see are through two-way immersion programs, which I’ve discussed in answering other questions. Here in Washington, D.C., parents are clamoring to get their children in to the Oyster public schools, where children who speak Spanish at home and children who speak English at home learn both languages side by side.

Question from Peter Fleischmann, teacher at the German School of CT in Weston:
What can be done to support programs for Heritage Speakers in our Public Schools?

Mary Ann Zehr:
One way to start is for schools to work with the local community-run programs that teach Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or other languages to heritage speakers. Public schools can offer space for them to run after-school programs, as Dearborn public schools does for community-run Arabic programs. School districts can provide students with credit for having learned a language outside of school.

Question from Donna Podgorny; Second Language Curriculum Coach; Union County Public Schools, NC:
What signs are there that the general public has a increased desire to learn a second language since January 2006 when the President’s National Security Language Initiative was announced?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
There’s been increased media coverage, but it is difficult to gauge a change in public sentiment just in the last few months. But I think policy tends to follow public interest in this area, it existed prior to the federal proposals, as did educators’ efforts to boost foreign language’s profile in the curriculum. The marketplace is usually a good indicator of the public demand, and it is the same with foreign language learning. Many immersion programs around the country, and indeed the ones in critical languages like Chinese and Arabic, have had increased interest in the last few years. In Portland, where the Chinese immersion program has generally been able to accept all comers, now has a waiting list. Language schools for adults are also thriving around the country.

Question from Stacy McAndrew - Spanish teacher/Dept Head - Centennial HS:
I strongly feel as though our district is trying to “weed out” our French and German programs and only have Spanish offered to students. Do you have any ideas for promoting these languages when a large amount of our students choose Spanish? How can we can District support of Foreign Language?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
Generally there has to be enough interest to sustain such programs. If there are enough students for French and German, that should provide the bulk of the argument for keeping those programs. If the Spanish program is siphoning off students, or there are too few students to make French and German programs feasible, perhaps an aggressive recruiting campaign would work. But you’ll have to essentially “sell” those programs to students and their parents. Getting support from an influential school board member, or community group associated with French and German-Americans might also help make the case.

Question from Mark San Souci, DoD Military Family Liaison:
Are your experts aware of any cutting edge state initiatives to encourage the move from languages like Spanish and French, to Arabic?

Mary Ann Zehr:
The New Jersey Department of Education is trying to pilot the teaching of Chinese at some public schools in the state. The project is in an early stage. The Fairfax County school system has a long history of teaching less commonly-taught languages such as Arabic and Korean. So do San Francisco public schools.

I listed all the public school districts I could find offering Arabic in an Education Week story two years ago. There’s a link to that story listed next to my story posted today about Arabic for ‘heritage speakers.’

Question from Moses Wambalaba, Equity Associate, Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory:
What are some ways/strategies schools can use to meet the needs of English Learners (EL)from diverse language backgrounds when they (schools) don’t have teachers or teacher aides knowlegeable in the students’ first languages?

Mary Ann Zehr:
Some school districts that struggle to find bilingual teachers are using the Sheltered English Instruction Protocal, SIOP, that was co-developed by the Center for Applied Linguistics. It’s an instruction model for teaching language along with academic content. One suggestion, for example, is to write a language objective on the blackboard each day as well as a content objective for the students--and teach to both objectives.

The model encourages building on students’ native languages, but is essentially an English-as-a-second-language model, not a bilingual education one.

Question from Dr Jan Jones, Executive Director, Learning Services, Mead School District, Mead, WA:
Our intstructional day is filled given the increased and inappropriate emphasis on high stakes testing. State and federal mandates on core content areas consume instructional time. How do schools create time during the union negotiated contract day, to add another intense instructional learning option such as a second language?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
Foreign Language is identified as a core subject under NCLB. While assessment is not required for FL, schools are supposed to provide standards-based instruction in the core subjects. These days it is challenging to fit in all the state-mandated content though. (In the Portland immersion program they teach math and social studies in Chinese--as well as other languages) There are ways to integrate FL into the curriculum. I would suggest contacting the American Council for the TEaching of Foreign Languages ( or the Asia Society ( for information and recommendations.

Question from Paul Grillo Chairperson World Languages Fall River Schools:
We have a problem in Fall River about maintaining world languages in all 4 middle schools and especially making a rationale for maintaining French. We currently teach French, Portuguese and Spanish in all 4 middle schools and they are threatening to cut languages from the middle school cuuriculum. However the new superintendent has indicated a long range goal of starting languages K-12. I am interested in visiting 2 way programs in massachusetts to see how they are set up. Do you know of any such programs? Thanks

Mary Ann Zehr:
I don’t know where two-way programs are in Massachusetts. But your comment about the challenge of maintaining foreign language teaching at the middle school level in Fall River shows how fragile many of these programs are. It takes heroic efforts by individual teachers and adminstrators to create them and keep them going.

Question from Bob Frangione, Art Teacher:
Are particular languages more important than others? Is there a need for language education or linguistic education?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
Right now Chinese and ARabic, and several other critical languages, have been identified as a national priority. However, language learning in general needs a boost. And, as we said earlier, learning one language can lead to learning another and another. Not that most people will become multilingual, but building foundational skills early increase the potential for most students that they will at least gain enough skill for the kind of simple communication in a foreign language that might enhance travel experiences, interactions with foreign clients, communications with immigrants, exchanges over the internet, etc.

Question from April Hershey, Student, ECU:
As a Language Arts teacher, I am concerned that foreign language study has disappeared from the curriculum. Is there any benefit to including an exposure to a foreign language in a comparative culture unit?

How do your discussants feel about non-licensed teachers offering “conversational” language classes?

What about incorporating comparative linguistics examples into the teaching of English grammar and word etymologies?

How helpful could loading a language tutor program onto the class computer for independent study for enrichment?

What about e-pals and some exposure for the students with the difficulties of using translation programs?

Mary Ann Zehr:
At Lowrey school in Dearborn, Michigan, 6th graders take an elective class in which they are exposed to several languages, including French and Arabic. That was the first time I’d heard of this kind of class, and I didn’t have a chance to observe it. I haven’t discussed with anyone yet whether it’s a good idea for non-licensed teachers to offer conversational language classes.

Question from :
In light of the current research regarding the negative effects standardized testing has on second language learners, how do you see testing practices changing as the population of ELL students increases?

Mary Ann Zehr:
Testing of ELLs, it seems, is here to say.

I explored testing issues in an article published Jan. 11 by Education Week (Scholars Seek Best Ways to Assess English-Learners). As of January, four states had developed versions of their test with modified English for their ELLs and ten states provided translations of their tests in either math or reading in some grades. I expect that more states--even those with smaller populations of ELLs, will try these kinds of accommodations. Researchers feel much more study needs to be done on what’s effective.

Question from Gayle Nadler:
What is being done at the federal level to support dual language schools, many of which are facing program restrictions due to NCLB accountability requirements?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
The recent federal initiatives, and those proposed, provide grant money to schools to improve language programs in critical languages...But the funding is somewhat limited. The typical school is feeling the curriculum squeeze caused by the math/reading focus of NCLB.

Question from Kathi Kearney, gifted ed. teacher, Noble VI School, Berwick ME:
I am happy about the new emphasis on languages, but concerned that the focus seems solely on languages such as Arabic or Chinese. With so few elementary and middle schools offering *any* language, wouldn’t it be prudent to encourage ALL world and classical language study? The skills of learning a language remain the same.

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
Yes, especially that given our capacity to teach Spanish, French, and even Japanese is much greater than for other languages. It would be easier, for example, to expand Spanish and French offerings to a large number of elementary schools than to do so for Chinese or Arabic. Most FL advocates agree that there will always be a need for students to learn Spanish and French.. and that just having that learning experience early on could pave the way to multilingual learning later on .

Question from Jim Whiteman, Head of Lower School, Lake Ridge Academy:
In your research and experience, have you made any conclusions about how the ideal elementary program in the USA should structure its foreign language program?

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:
I think the most research has been done on immersion programs and dual language programs, both of which have proven very effective. Students in those programs tend to do as well as or better than their peers academically overall, so the language programs do not undermine their learning in the subject areas.

Question from Michelle Natal, Spanish teacher Williamstown Middle School:
I am hearing how the government is pushing for Middle Eastern and Asian languages to be imposed upon World language programs throughout public schools. Will those be mandatory such as Spanish, French and other romantic languges? And at what level? Does the immigration law/ bill that is being voted on affecting language education? Are there any grants for elementary world languages?

Mary Ann Zehr:
President Bush announced an initiative this year to provide funds for schools and universities to teach critical-needs languages, which include Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, and Russian. Participation is completely optional for schools, not imposed. The current immigration bills pending in Congress do not have any provisions related to the teaching of languages in schools.

The U.S. Department of Education has a small grant program, called the Foreign Language Assistance Program, that is the primary way that the federal government has funded K-12 schools to teach foreign languages. Those grants are available to elementary schools.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):

Thank you for joining us for this informative chat about foreign-language education in the United States. I would encourage all of you to read Kathleen and Mary Ann’s series, “Language: Mission Critical.” The first two installments of the series are on and the last installment will be available online April 12.