As a diplomat, Richard Steffens has helped open the American Chamber of Commerce of Russia, taken part in disaster relief when floods struck the Czech Republic, and organized the first U.S. trade mission to Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein. In his current posting as a commercial counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, the envoy is regularly called on to speak with Ukrainian government officials, address groups of business leaders in Russia, and give interviews to the press in those countries.
His aptitude in Russian, and several other foreign languages, he says, is “one of the absolute keys to being an effective diplomat.”
Such language skills—which are coming into vogue as essential tools in the global economy—have been cultivated far away from the international spotlight. For Mr. Steffens, 47, they started to sprout in the 2nd grade, when he began studying French in the Glastonbury, Conn., public schools, and later when he took up Russian in middle and high school there.
Thousands of Glastonbury students have built proficiency in those languages, as well as Spanish, Latin, Japanese, and now, Mandarin Chinese. The 8,000-student district began fashioning its renowned foreign-language program half a century ago in what was then a rural hamlet outside Hartford. The program is now viewed as a model for meeting the demand for graduates with language skills and an understanding of other countries and cultures.
“This was a very small farming community,” said Lynne Campbell, a graduate of the district who has taught Russian there for 34 years, “and to think that farmers would have the vision to see that early language training and less commonly taught languages could be an asset to our future citizens is pretty remarkable.”
Advocates of foreign-language education have been trying to make that case for years, but the message that sustained, sequential language study, beginning in the early grades, is most effective is still struggling to take hold. Foreign-language study has become a mainstay in the nation’s high schools—many states have minimal graduation requirements in the subject—and it is now a common offering in middle schools. But while programs for younger students have spread, they are still the exception.
Little recent data exist on the number of U.S. students taking foreign languages at the various grade levels. The Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington is currently updating a national survey it conducted in 1987 and 1997, when one in three elementary schools offered some language instruction, much of it basic or piecemeal. Forward a decade: American business leaders and policymakers are touting foreign-language proficiency as an necessary tool for maintaining the nation’s global competitiveness and for preparing students to work in the 21st-century marketplace.
The National Research Council, however, recently decried the “fragmented” nature of foreign-language education and the “pervasive lack of knowledge of foreign cultures and foreign languages” among the nation’s citizens. The federal government has offered more than $60 million for programs that build a pipeline of students with skills in critical languages, such as Arabic, Mandarin, Russian, and Spanish, from the early grades through college, in the hope of grooming more language experts, business professionals, and diplomats like Mr. Steffens. Glastonbury is one of the school systems in the grant program.
Many districts are reluctant to add such programs, particularly at the elementary level, at a time when they are beefing up instruction in mathematics, reading, and to a lesser extent, science, to meet the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, as well as other curricular mandates. (“Students Get Taste of ‘National Security’ Languages,” Aug. 1, 2007.)
Unlike most districts, Glastonbury has the benefit of a long-established program, as well as the curricular freedom afforded high-performing schools. But district officials and educators argue that the program—which requires foreign-language study beginning in the elementary grades, and expands study options at the secondary level—provides the kind of rich curriculum that bolsters student achievement.
“We make a concerted effort to support students’ literacy and math development, even science learning, through foreign-language instruction,” said Christine L. Brown, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction and a former director of the foreign-language program. “It’s hard for people to imagine that students’ learning a second or a third language can really enhance their own learning in English, … but those who are multilingual understand that.”
Several research studies since the 1990s have concluded that elementary pupils learning a foreign language performed better on standardized tests in math and reading than their peers who were not in such classes. Connecticut researchers are conducting a study of student performance in the district to gauge what effect, if any, the foreign-language program has on achievement.
Allison Raggie, a first-year teacher in the district, has seen that happen for the students in her Spanish classes at Smith Middle School, where she is part of a team of teachers who work to integrate lessons from various core-subject areas. On a recent field trip to a local farm, for example, Ms. Raggie helped students conduct an archaeological dig on the historic site. She introduced related vocabulary words and concepts in Spanish to supplement lessons by the science and social studies teachers.
“I teach history, math components, and do everything in an interdisciplinary way,” said Ms. Raggie, a graduate of Glastonbury High School. Back at school during daily 20-minute Spanish lessons, her students learn about different countries where the language is spoken, and are introduced to the culture, literature, food, and natural resources of those regions.
“They are learning so much,” she said. “Everything I can jam-pack into 20-minute lessons.”
Magnet for Teachers
By high school, many Glastonbury students are going on study trips abroad and exchange programs that immerse them in the language and culture they’ve been studying. Half of all Glastonbury graduates have studied at least two languages throughout their schooling, while four in 10 have acquired some knowledge of three languages, Ms. Brown said.
The combination of classroom and practical study has given them an edge when they enter college with skills for upper-level courses, as well as in careers in engineering, business, teaching, and overseas jobs, according to responses from a recent survey sent to Glastonbury graduates.
“They are definitely using their language skills,” said Rita Oleksak, who has directed the program for the past two years. “What’s most interesting in their comments is that they think of the language they learned as a real skill that will help them in college and their careers.”
Glastonbury’s reputation has made it a coveted place for foreign-language teachers, sparing the district the difficulty—common throughout the country—of attracting and keeping qualified teachers, particularly in critical languages like Russian and Chinese. The district offers intensive professional development, including summer camps, to help multilingual teachers hone their content knowledge and instructional techniques.
‘Just Start It’
Although it might be difficult to replicate the Glastonbury program—with its long history and the support of an upper-middle-class community—other districts can start to build strong language offerings, said Ms. Oleksak, who is the president of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, an advocacy group in Alexandria, Va.
Before taking over the Glastonbury program, she spent two decades in the foreign-language department in the Springfield, Mass., district. That 26,000-student district has also made foreign-language study a priority, Ms. Oleksak said, even as it struggles to meet the academic needs of its large proportion of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“You need to just start it,” she said. That’s what the Springfield district did 20 years ago when it established a single class in Chinese for two dozen students. More than 1,000 in the district now study the language.
“You need to start with a language which may be of interest to the community and for which you have teachers,” Ms. Oleksak said, “and then build from there.”
After 50 years, Glastonbury is still doing just that, she said. She and others in the district are discussing ways to increase the amount of time devoted to middle school language lessons, and possibly expanding the program to include offerings in other languages deemed critical to the United States, such as Arabic and Farsi.
“Here, foreign language is a commitment that’s as important as math and science and history and English,” said Ms. Campbell, who studied French, Spanish, and Russian in Glastonbury and through college. “It’s not an afterthought. It’s an integral part of the academic program.”
Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as Foreign-Languages Acquisition A Vital Part of District’s Mission