Sunday, January 24, 2010

NY Times: Foreign Languages Fade in Class — Except Chinese

A story from last week's NY Times:
Thousands of public schools stopped teaching foreign languages in the last decade, according to a government-financed survey — dismal news for a nation that needs more linguists to conduct its global business and diplomacy.

But another contrary trend has educators and policy makers abuzz: a rush by schools in all parts of America to offer instruction in Chinese.

Some schools are paying for Chinese classes on their own, but hundreds are getting some help. The Chinese government is sending teachers from China to schools all over the world — and paying part of their salaries.

At a time of tight budgets, many American schools are finding that offer too good to refuse.

In Massillon, Ohio, south of Cleveland, Jackson High School started its Chinese program in the fall of 2007 with 20 students and now has 80, said Parthena Draggett, who directs Jackson’s world languages department.

“We were able to get a free Chinese teacher,” she said. “I’d like to start a Spanish program for elementary children, but we can’t get a free Spanish teacher.”

(Jackson’s Chinese teacher is not free; the Chinese government pays part of his compensation, with the district paying the rest.)

No one keeps an exact count, but rough calculations based on the government’s survey suggest that perhaps 1,600 American public and private schools are teaching Chinese, up from 300 or so a decade ago. And the numbers are growing exponentially.

Among America’s approximately 27,500 middle and high schools offering at least one foreign language, the proportion offering Chinese rose to 4 percent, from 1 percent, from 1997 to 2008, according to the survey, which was done by the Center for Applied Linguistics, a research group in Washington, and paid for by the federal Education Department.

“It’s really changing the language education landscape of this country,” said Nancy C. Rhodes, a director at the center and co-author of the survey.

Other indicators point to the same trend. The number of students taking the Advanced Placement test in Chinese, introduced in 2007, has grown so fast that it is likely to pass German this year as the third most-tested A.P. language, after Spanish and French, said Trevor Packer, a vice president at the College Board.

“We’ve all been surprised that in such a short time Chinese would grow to surpass A.P. German,” Mr. Packer said.

A decade ago, most of the schools with Chinese programs were on the East and West Coasts. But in recent years, many schools have started Chinese programs in heartland states, including Ohio and Illinois in the Midwest, Texas and Georgia in the South, and Colorado and Utah in the Rocky Mountain West.

Read the full story


  1. There will always be a language du jour:

    Russian in the 1960s during the Cold War
    Chinese in the 1970s (after Tricky Dick's visit)
    Japanese in the 1980s (when Japan was poised to dominate the global economy)
    And now Chinese once more.

    Millions on Chinese-Americans are fully bilingual already, so when your Junior graduates from his immersion program several years down the line, he won't have much of a leg up.

  2. I think that this story doesn't really fit the situation here in California, where world language in K-8 started getting cut back drastically shortly after Prop. 13.

    At least they're still in high schools. My daughter's Russian class at SOTA is fantastic. Her big brother didn't have as much luck; his French teacher was, well, problematic - but a strong principal has managed to deal successfully with that problem. SOTA currently offers Spanish, Italian and Mandarin as well.

  3. This story exactly fits our situation right here in San Francisco.

    Kim-Shree Maufas attended one of the school administrator programs in China and within six months, we get, DA DA, De Avila.

    Plus, it works out well for the illegal immigrants from China. That's another New York Times story, not posted in this blog for some reason.

    No wonder we can't get a Russian, German, Japanese etc. immersion program.

    But kind of a moot point, what with all the cut backs. Most kids will be lucky if they even learn English.

  4. I'm glad to hear Mandarin or Cantonese is blossoming as a second language, but the fact that many many schools have no foreign language (like many of the GE programs in SF elementary schools from what I can tell) is embarrassing and shameful. The jokes about Americans and their inability to speak other languages is commonplace throughout Europe (I have heard them regularly and all too often over the years), where many children have a second language introduced as early as 7 years old, and up to 4 languages by the time they're in HS.

  5. 9:07, I strongly agree about the need for foreign language starting in elementary school. But OTOH, Europeans have been laughing at Americans for our lack of multilingual schools for decades, going well back to when we had plenty of foreign language instruction in our schools.

  6. It is very unfortunate that Americans are not learning some of the languages of the EU.

    There are some Spanish immersion programs here in the city, but there are few that have a strong academic program as well as a language program.

    There are no other EU languages offered in public school immersion programs.

    China does not have a history of cultural or economic openness. At the moment, they are crying "economic imperialism" because Google is asking them to investigate a security breach that appears to have originated in China.

    There is little history of due process, religious freedom or racial diversity in China. The environmental devastation is great enough that the smog is starting to appear over the west coast of North America.

    Microsoft, HP, Google, Applied Materials and Apple and grovelling to get market share in China and have outsourced many of their design centers there. We seem to be entirely unaware of the negative impact that this is having on the California economy.

    And it is true about the first post. China will simply employ Chinese/American bilingual speakers rather than having to deal with Caucasian Americans.

    With the rising economic prominence of Brazil, I'm surprised the city hasn't attempted to start a Portuguese program.

    Given the importance and ease of doing business in the EU, it is very unfortunate that the public schools don't have more EU language immersion programs.

    But, really, I've come to expect so little from the schools. Three years ago, I was hopeful.

    Not so now.

  7. What I don't get is why it has to be all or nothing. You either have the choice of immersion, which you have to commit to for the duration of K-5 (heaven forbid you need to move - that would create an awkward transition to a non-immersion school elsewhere) or you have GE. Sprinkled in are a few bilingual/bicultural programs that seem to offer a nice balance of GE and language/culture, but there aren't many of those. Then you have GE, with little to no language, unless you sign up for it after school.

    Then you have the true bilingual programs that are only for kids who need to learn English AND who have parents who wish to maintain the language of their homeland - an exclusive opportunity for a precious few. (Don't get me started...)

    Why don't we offer language 1 hour a day to every kid? If the district is so committed to having SF kids graduate bilingual, there seems to be a gap in making this happen. I don't mean to sound critical. I just don't understand the logic in the current offerings.

  8. There are people who argue that children will not be "bilingual" unless they are in an immersion program, and they may be right for all but the most adept kids. Kids might get familiar, even conversant, with an hour a day, but they won't be true bilinguals (and I am not an "immersion-only" person; I'd be thrilled for my kid to have an hour a day and get familiar or conversant). Making every public school an immersion program simply won't fly for a vast number of reasons. Here are a few: (1) Many immigrant families want their kids in an English-only school environment. (2) It's quite involved to launch a new program, especially if it's a language for which the district does not already have curriculum and trained teachers. (3) Not all kids are suited to immersion programs--for example dyslexic kids frequently have a hard enough with one language; forcing them into 2 will set them up for failure. Children with more severe learning disabilities will really be out in the cold. (4) Not all Anglophone parents, particularly those who never studied a language, are comfortable having the majority of their kids' work unfathomable to them. So, once again, just as they did by establishing "reducing racial isolation" as half of their #1 objective in their "bold strategic plan," the school board has its head you-know-where making these kinds of pronouncements. The district doesn't have the money or other resources, and it doesn't have a willing population. Yes I would love to see more foreign language opportunities in our schools. But I imagine where the district would get the resources to provide them.

  9. Oops, I meant to say I CAN'T imagine where the district would get the resources.

  10. Just wanted to say I agree with 10:01. My family's heritage is European, so I'd love for our child to be more exposed to European culture and language in SFUSD (besides English).

    The recent incidents with the Chinese gov't make me feel like I relate a lot less to that culture and its customs. I have a feeling I am not in the minority on this matter.

  11. One of the reasons I'm intrigued (and listed) Flynn GE was that as a International Bac program offer Spanish in a non-immersion curriculum. I think this is great. Regular exposure to a language can do so much -- it doesn't have to be all or nothing!

  12. The racism and xenophobia even here in supposedly open-minded and progressive San Francisco boggles the mind, as parents show their true colors when it comes down to learning languages other than European ones. The comments in this blog should be monitored more closely, perhaps, or would that be censorship?

  13. "The comments in this blog should be monitored more closely, perhaps, or would that be censorship?"

    Uh, yeah. Censorship is the word that comes to mind. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and just because someone might like their kid(s) to learn a language other than Cantonese or Spanish does not make him or her a racist.