Foreign Languages Key to Education

The following interview is about a French teacher who shares her love of the French language with her students.

Shawn Cetrone, “For York Teacher, Foreign Languages Key to Education” July 24, 2010 (Herald online)

Polly Adkins has been teaching French at York Comprehensive High School since it opened in the 1970s.

This month she received a Dorothy Ludwig Award from the American Association of Teachers of French – an honor for educators “who have demonstrated excellence and commitment in teaching French language, culture and literature … and made a significant impact on students.”

The award, presented to educators in elementary, secondary and college, comes with a cash prize.

Adkins, who also teaches drama, is her school’s only French teacher and works with students at all levels. She talked with The Herald about teaching, and how budget cuts might affect foreign language programs.

What made you decide to teach foreign language for a living? Why French?

I had an excellent high school French teacher, Edna Ann Nolan Belk, who gave me a very sound basis in the French language and a love for French culture. When asked to declare a major my freshman year in college, I impulsively wrote down “French,” because it was the subject I loved the best.

At Winthrop, I also had wonderful French professors who continued the excellent teaching, taking me to Paris for study at the Sorbonne and to the Université de Laval in Québec.

What has kept you teaching for so many years?

I love seeing teenagers begin to awaken to possibilities; the possibilities of learning to speak and read a foreign language, the possibilities of travel to a foreign country and of realizing that their cultural world in York is not all there is out there.

I also love to see the magic of theater take shape in their minds. I love the fact that my summers can occasionally be spent visiting France or performing professionally in summer theater. Financially, I have needed to continue to teach so that I can pay the normal bills and afford these occasional trips.

Should foreign language be an elementary and middle school requirement like it is in high school?

Yes. The language learning part of the brain begins slowly to atrophy right after puberty. This is not to say that adults and teenagers can’t learn a foreign language; they can, but it’s harder to do. It makes no sense to lose those ripe years when language learning is so easy.

Elementary and middle school programs for foreign language make good sense, and many studies show that students who have access to such teaching do better in all their school work, no matter what the subject. Of course the problem here is funding, but foreign language programs should start in elementary schools, just as they do in most European countries.

Across the state, budget cuts are hurting academic programs in public schools. Some districts have cut elementary school foreign language courses as a result of budget cuts. Do you have a sense of how foreign language has been affected? How might that affect students as they progress through elementary, middle and high school?

I have heard from colleagues across the state that some programs have been dropped. For instance, some schools have been forced by lack of funds to provide only one foreign language for the district, instead of two or more. Some elementary school programs have been cut. Some foreign language teachers who are retiring are not being replaced at the moment.

Not to get into politics, but it’s sad when the state can’t provide for the basics of education. And foreign languages should be considered basic to a good education in the United States. I wish the property taxes hadn’t been eliminated as a source for school funds, because that’s when most of the schools’ financial problems began.

Everyone wants lower taxes, but we all seem to forget that taxes pay for the schools and the teachers who teach the state’s children. In a “free” public school society, everybody pays one way or another, now or later.

You were one of the first South Carolina teachers to have students correspond with peers in another country over the Internet. Are the students ever surprised by what they learn from their French peers and vice versa?

The students learn about a culture that is different from their own, but they also realize that they aren’t so different from their counterparts in France. We actually had exchange programs with home stays between the two schools, too.

Nowadays, students can communicate with foreign students on their own, by e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. It’s relatively easy.

What advice do you have for adults who want to learn a foreign language?

A tutor is the best method, but of course, it’s also the most expensive. There are groups such as the Alliance Française that meet regularly and encourage people to speak French with natives or American francophones. There are also several excellent software programs that can adequately teach the basics of any foreign language.

Local universities and technical colleges often offer classes for adults to learn languages. Foreign travel and longer stays in the foreign country are the best way to perfect the basic knowledge.

It’s not easy, but it can be achieved if you are dedicated enough to stick with it. A language is a habit, and you can lose it fairly quickly if you don’t use it. But I often remind people that the brain can store the language you learned in school, deep in unused drawers, which can be opened and retrieved anytime.

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