Making the Grade
For some students, taking a foreign language class during their high school years is just another school requirement. For others, it’s the opportunity to broaden their horizons for the future.
The days when these students would have only the choice between Spanish or French are long gone. Students can now take other languages such as German, Latin and even Japanese.
"Studying languages broadens one's perspectives, and helps one gain an appreciation for, and an understanding of, the interdependent and global world in which we live," explains Madonna Lee Edmunds, Principal of Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest.
Yet, studies show that United States schools actually lag behind the rest of the world in offering foreign language study. For many years, schools in Europe and Asia have aimed to provide multi-lingual preparation for their students. In Switzerland, students usually graduate from high school being able to converse in four different languages.
"The change in what the public wants in American education has given rise to a necessity for more languages being offered," remarks Dr. Jeffrey Daley, Principal of Luther High School North in Chicago. "One hundred years ago the public school system in America had as it’s main purpose the "Americanization" of its students, and now the public demands a "globalization" of its students. Unfortunately, American education continues to require, in its mandatory educational systems, less actual education time and fewer formal class days per year than any other civilized country in the world."
While many schools strive to offer more foreign language offerings to their students, finding instructors to actually teach these exotic languages can be tough.
"Being a smaller high school, especially one that is non-public and therefore operates without local, state or federal tax dollars, finding either full-time jobs for language specialists, or even these certified individuals committing to part-time jobs is especially difficult, as good ones are very difficult to find," explains Dr. Daley.
When Dr. Daley took over the reigns as principal almost six years ago, Luther North only offered Spanish. Since that time, the school has expanded to offer German this year and plans to offer Polish and Russian the following year.
"We are currently searching for a qualified and certified Polish teacher as our community has in the last two decades become largely Eastern European," says Dr. Daley. "Recently, more and more 1st generation American immigrants have found this to be a great source of income and the availability of qualified teachers has increased. I think the proliferation of opportunities goes hand in hand with the globalization of our culture and society."
Fenwick High School in Oak Park currently requires students to take four years of language studies. School administrators cite the recent cultural emphasis on dual-language proficiency as justification for the expansion of their language program.
"The world is so much more accessible for today’s student," explains Director of Admissions at Fenwick High School, Francesca Casaccio. "Many students have a goal to study or work abroad. They know the language skills will help them."
There are plenty of reasons students choose particular language to study. Yet, teachers say they are beginning to notice trends in what languages are becoming more popular with their students.
"Students who take Latin say they gain a better understanding of the breakdown of the English language – helping them identify unknown words in English and on standardized tests," says Casaccio.
"Students tend to take Latin for one of two reasons," adds Woodlands’ Edmunds. "Some are looking for root vocabulary words to help them on College Board testing and for background in science. Others take Latin because they have a love of the classics and enjoy translating beautiful literature. Latin is logical and linear, and really helps students with their critical reasoning skills."
Woodlands Academy recently added the study of Mandarin Chinese to their International Languages Program. "Woodlands Academy currently shares a Chinese teacher with a nearby school, Lake Forest Country Day School," says Edmunds, whose school has a three-year minimum requirement for graduation in the area of International Languages. "Seven percent of our student body comes in early to school at 7:30 to take this "early bird" course."
Fine-tuning those language skills is done in many different ways. Students at the British School of Chicago use material from target language countries, high-quality listening exercises, structured internet research and CD-ROMs to accompany the purpose written textbooks in order to develop the confidence and language skills necessary for success.
Learning a language involves so much more than the memorization of words and phrases. Teachers spend much time in the classroom immersing their students in the culture of the language in which they teach.
"It is important in Latin classes to make comparisons between cultures of the past and present," says Edmunds. "There are other comparisons with military decisions, events and social norms which bring about the decline in civilizations. In addition, there is the rich heritage of architectural and engineering marvels, and the model for governments which have been handed down to us."
"Bringing information into synthesis is also important and by having the students read and write with new grammar points facilitates this," adds Casaccio, who also teaches Italian at Fenwick. "Adding culture such as songs, poems, art, literature and pop culture can really bring the grammar material to life and provide a more engaging lesson at the synthesis point. Students should feel the joy of the language and culture from the teacher."
Language can literally come alive when students have the chance to interact with students their own age who live in the other countries whose language they study.
At the British School of Chicago, authentic experiences are a valuable support for the work that goes on within the classroom. The school has links with schools in Montreal, Spain and Costa Rica that enable students to communicate via computer and by letter writing with young people of a similar age. Students also have the chance to embark on an annual excursion to a target language country each year.