Monthly Archives: October 2010

Foreign Language Cuts at SUNY Prompt Debates

As they say, “it isn’t over until the fat lady sings. . .”  The decision to eliminate the Italian, French and Russian departments (as well as classics and theater) at SUNY have caused quite a stir and now, it seems, some thought-provoking debate.

Here’s the latest on the cuts from The Miscellany News, October 28, 2010 (story by Mitchell Gilburne:

State University of New York (SUNY) Albany’s decision to cut their Italian, French, Russian, classics and theater programs has ignited scholarly discourse and has forced educators to question the global state of education.

Proficiency in a foreign language, particularly Latin and French, has long been a symbol of educated status. Now, however, these languages among other disciplines find themselves unrepresented at SUNY Albany, a public institution. Now, the scholarly community at large is plagued by the implications of what many be seen as an affront to higher learning.

Vassar College’s Italian Department Chair Eugenio Giusti identifies what he feels to be the true mark of an education as, “growth of the individual, which needs to be a complete affirmation of the individual.” Giusti is firm in his conviction that an education, particularly when concerning foreign language, is an exchange; one that cannot be characterized by picking and choosing suitable components, but rather one that is fully and irreversibly experienced.

It is exactly this experience that much of Vassar’s faculty insists is integral to a complete education. “Is it enough to study a language only to be able to order a coffee when we travel?” asks Vassar’s Dean of Studies Joanne Long. Long’s question challenges the notion of language as a purely utilitarian tool. Long continues, “There is a tendency to find what is consonant with your own worldview rather than be pushed to see difference. Language widens your imagination of possibilities.” Long is adamant that the defense of language, and the humanities in general, must avoid the vagaries that often plague the defense of education as an insular entity. She presents the value of studying language by linking it inseparably with mastery of one’s native tongue, “The study of languages takes things further, looks at things in more detail, makes conclusions that are more nuanced. The power of analysis is part of what the liberal arts is doing. You can’t understand your own language until you understand another.” Giusti fears that globalization combats the sanctity of bilingual ambitions. He notes, “Under the general view of globalization only a few sectors are viewed as valid, that is, commercially valid, and things are only pursued in that direction.” Long echoes these concerns by calling SUNY Albany’s thriving Arabic and Chinese Departments into question.

Though she is by no means critical of their success, she wonders if the equity that the University sees in these departments is derived from the ease with which proficiency in such languages translates into a tangible career path. Dean of the School of Education at SUNY Albany Robert Bangert-Drownes confirms these suspicions in his partial explanation of the University’s methodology. “There may be an indirect relationship,” he admits. “Students may be more heavily enrolling in Arabic and East Asian studies because they have the anticipation that they’ll be doing more business with those cultures. But there was no decision at the administrative level to suspend programs on that basis,” he clarifies. Regardless of this assurance, Giusti finds Bangert-Drownes’ explanation as support for the notion that, “The knowledge of a language is not viewed as an enriching process but instead as a market tool.”

It is just this vision of the future that leaves Chair of Greek and Roman Studies at Vassar College Rachel Friedman deeply uncomfortable. She explains, “This is part of a trend of commodification of education by which only what can be quantified is valued, and there is a growing sense that education has to be utilitarian and functional.” Long continues this thought offering an image of a “Crisis of the Humanities.” She says, “There is some movement, worldwide I would say, to understand education as a tool for economic development and even national and cultural posturing.” Friedman describes this trend as “a xenophobic narrowing of American education.” As a classicist, Friedman is well aware of the value of the past to inform the present, and is wary of endorsing a policy that disregards the history of the institution it is playing god with.

Administrators at SUNY Albany approach the suspensions within the humanities in a pragmatic light characterized by fiscal concerns and quantifiable evidence. Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at SUNY Albany Heidi Andrade explains, “Our budget has been cut 30 percent…it’s amazing that we’re offering education to anyone at this point!” However, challenges to the University’s decisions do not stem from the necessity of cuts, but rather from the narrow range of this gutting. Andrade explains the determining factor behind the cuts, “These decisions were based on enrollment, and productivity of the faculty. If people are not enrolling in the classes then those are the classes that get put up to be suspended.” Though Andrade asserts that “The humanities are alive and well at SUNY Albany,” the sentiment is tempered by her remark that “languages are notoriously trendy,” and her original e-mailed statement professing, “I cannot claim to have any particular expertise nor even passion for the issues you raise but, like any good academic, I will say something anyway.”

Friedman, however, is frightened to see the fate of unquantifiable skills be determined by numbers, noting, “that’s a blunt instrument for an institution of higher learning to be using.” Bangert-Drownes is acutely of this, “We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he says, “I remember leaving meetings feeling nauseated because of the dire financial situation the University finds ourselves in and the lack of options.” Torn between ideals and reality, Bangert-Drownes admits, “I don’t think this represents anyone’s definition of what makes a good education; I don’t think that any decision to downsize is a good one.” he concludes. Though Bangert-Drownes is sympathetic to the fates of the recently departed disciplines at SUNY Albany, Long is suspicious of sinister possibilities. “One fact to keep in mind, in looking at Albany,” she laments, “is that the only way that you can get rid of tenured faculty is by getting rid of a department.”

In response to the developments at SUNY Albany in light of the current economy Friedman asserts, “You could argue that state schools are more enrolled and have a greater responsibility.” Bangert-Drownes, however, is reassured by his University’s response to an increased interest in public education. “We could open the gates and allow students to enroll and make money off of them and make poor quality classes, and I think this University did not want to do that. It did not want to capitalize on enrollments,” he finishes, “I actually think this University is making a courageous move.”

Is SUNY Albany a trendsetter or an outlier? Giusti sees the cuts at Albany as the next step in cerebral commoditization. “That tells you a lot about a public school, because you see them producing not people who think, but people who produce with their brains, you make them into a business.”

Bangert-Drownes agrees that the position SUNY Albany has found itself in is a reflection of a need for education reform. “My sense is that the state is schizophrenic about its higher education program,” he says, “We want a large and expansive and successful public education system in the state, but we don’t want to pay for it. I really see the story here as a story about financial support for public higher education.”

Despite the difficulties of financial pressure, Vassar professors are chafed by the fact that a large, and historically important sector of knowledge is being withheld from future attendees of SUNY Albany. Friedman concludes that SUNY Albany’s actions may carry as much meaning as the languages they have suspended proclaiming, “I think liberal arts colleges have to take a stand and convey a commitment to education on its own terms, and sometimes the choices we make have to be seen as significant for what they communicate about our values.”

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Budget Cuts Kill Off Foreign Language Program

Once again a school system’s foreign language program falls victim to budget cuts!

Article written by John Schmid, “Strapped Schools Ax Foreign Languages,” Journal Sentinel, October 23, 2010:

The central Wisconsin village of Marathon City (population 1,085) knows something about global competition that eludes many Americans: In a world of global trade, a second language can be a surefire ticket to a career.

The school district there began offering Chinese-language classes in 2005, in a town that boasts Wisconsin’s oldest trade ties with China. For more than a century, China has been dispatching traders to buy Marathon County’s delicate ginseng crop, prized in Asia as a premium medicinal herb.

In an abrupt change, however, Marathon City this year was forced to cancel its Chinese-language program, avictim of cuts in the state education budget.

According to a recent study, schools across the nation are doing the same – eliminating foreign language instruction and undermining a skill that economists and educators agree is one of the most overlooked but essential navigation skills in a global economy.

From 1997 to 2008, the share of all U.S. elementary schools offering language classes fell from 31% to 25%, while middle schools dropped from 75% to 58%. High school language instruction was static, according to thenationwide survey published this year by the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C.

The trend reinforces an old joke among linguists:

If you speak two languages, you’re bilingual. If you speak one, you’re American.

“Sometimes we get very provincial in our thinking,” said Don Viegut, who helped launch the Chinese-language program in 2005 when he was superintendent of the Marathon School District.

Viegut grew up in the area, considered the ginseng-growing capital of the United States. He became a Fulbright Scholar in Japan and conducted academic exchanges in Argentina, Australia, China and Germany. In Germany, Viegut noted that some students graduate from high school with proficiency in no fewer than six languages.

His son was able to study Chinese for four years in high school and now takes advanced Chinese as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Now, Marathon City students no longer have that option, said Viegut, who has since taken a job with the Oshkosh School District.

“We’ve lost over a half million dollars in state aid in the past two years,” said Marathon school Superintendent Rick Parks. “It’s not that we didn’t want it.”

Declining numbers

Language enrollment in Wisconsin’s public schools, including Latin, peaked in 2004-’05 at 56% of the state’s students from grades six through 12.

It has since fallen to 54%, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

Chinese-language programs grew incrementally from zero a decade ago to 0.3% of all sixth- through 12th-graders as of the 2008-’09 school year, the agency said.

How can Americans expect to carve new trade routes into nations where they cannot understand the TV shows, websites or train conductors?

Much of Europe and Asia, by contrast, make second and third languages compulsory, beginning early in grade school, according to Center for Applied Linguistics researcher Nancy Rhodes, who wrote the report on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education.

“They will all become multilingual students of the world, while U.S. students plod along,” Rhodes said. “We’ll be left in the dust and unable to communicate with people around the world.”

Chinese grade-schoolers start learning English by third grade under a national law that supports Beijing’s export ambitions – which means China is producing English speakers by the hundreds of millions.

And yet schools in poorer communities and rural areas of the U.S. that need to create jobs most urgently were least likely to offer foreign languages, according to Rhodes’ study.

“Compared to students in much of the world, U.S. students lag far behind,” the center concluded in a separate study.

The German and French languages have seen the sharpest declines in instruction in the U.S., although they are the most influential non-English trade languages in Europe.

At least until the very latest round of budget cuts, which haven’t shown up in national statistics, Chinese classes showed growth in the U.S., albeit off a very low base. As recently as the 2004-’05 school year, 20,000 Americans were enrolled in Chinese classes, including the most rudimentary instruction, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. That figure nearly tripled through 2007-’08, the latest year for which statistics are available, but it is still a tiny fraction of what’s happening in China. There, in big cities like Beijing and Shenzhen, English-language instruction often starts in the first grade.


Americans often assume they don’t need other languages, said Marty Abbott, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

“In terms of national security and economic competitiveness, it behooves us to learn other cultures,” Abbott said.

One reason is that English is not the most-spoken language on the planet. One in five around the world speak Chinese, outnumbering native English speakers two-to-one – including those in the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

In the online world as well, Chinese-language users number 450 million and are rapidly are catching up with the 537 million who use English, according to Internet World Stats. Spanish, Japanese, German and French all trail at a distance.

“The most significant motivation for adopting Chinese-language programs has been the continuing growth of the Chinese economy and the perception that the U.S.-China relationship is key for the future prosperity and stability of the world,” said Chris Livaccari, an associate director at the Asia Society.

Promoting Asian languages is a core part of the mission of the Asia Society, a nonprofit education group founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller III.

In addition, there is a significant side benefit to learning the Chinese language: the cognitive skill that comes from mastering a complex, graphic, non-alphabetical writing system.

“Many link Chinese success in science, math and education to the pattern recognition and mental practices needed to learn the language at an early age in the first place,” Livaccari said.


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Why Learning a Foreign Language is Necessary

This video, why not humorous like the other two I posted, gets to the heart of the matter — why learning a language different from the one we speak — is important — and why it should be learned from early childhood onwards:

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Learning from our mistakes? Should have taken a foreign language class . . .

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Funny Foreign Language Video

If you don’t learn a second language, could this happen to you?!

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Importance of Learning a Second Language

Like I have been saying all along, we need to start young students learning a language other than their own from an early age.  That’s when kids pick up a language the fastest.  I should know because I started learning another language at age four and now am continuing to learn four others.  I strongly agree with the superintendent of an Oregon school system (please see the article printed below)  who said: “We are the only industrial country where kids don’t learn another language.  We are out of line with the rest of the world in terms of second language instruction.  Nationally, it’s a problem we’re not doing more.”  Foreign languages are crucial not just for the purpose of communicating with people around the world.  They’re important because we need to know more about other nations’ cultures and history to improve world relations.

Story by Paris Achen from the Associated Press, “Medford Area Students Lack Foreign Language Classes,” October 17, 2010:

As soon as eighth-grader Breanna Cwiklinski heard Mandarin Chinese would be offered at Central Point’s Scenic Middle School this year, she was eager to sign up for the class.

“There was nothing else like it,” Breanna says. “It’s the first time ever there was another language to learn (at school), and it was a good opportunity.”
After about a month of instruction from teacher Qi Jing, of Xuchang, China, Breanna and her 36 classmates, divided between two sections, can understand simple sentences in Mandarin and have learned about China and its culture.
Breanna says one of the differences she noticed between U.S. and Chinese societies is that all Chinese students learn English at a young age.
Ordinarily, Chinese students begin studying English in the third grade, says Lin Lin, a Mandarin teacher at Medford’s St. Mary’s School. (St. Mary’s provides the Mandarin instructor at Scenic free of charge as part of its role as a Confucius Classroom designated and funded by the Chinese government-affiliated Hanban Chinese Language Council.)
Proactive Chinese parents in large cities often enroll their children in English classes at ages as young as 4 or 5, Lin Lin says.
“I think at a young age we should learn another language, too, because you see a lot of different nationalities over here,” Breanna says.
An estimated 18.5 percent of U.S. students in kindergarten through the 12th grade were enrolled in a second language class at school in 2007-08, according to a survey by the Alexandria, Va.-based American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages due to be released later this month.
That percentage has increased by only half a percent from 10 years before, says ACTFL Executive Director Brett Lovejoy.

Second language instruction is rarely available at Jackson County public elementary and middle schools, and only a fraction of students participate. Even at the high school level, a minority of students are enrolled in a second language at any given time.
Ten out of 13 Jackson County public high schools, seven out of 14 public middle schools and nine out of 39 public elementary schools offer any type of a second language, either during or after school, according to research by the Mail Tribune.
Exceptions are Medford’s Madrone Trail Public Charter School, where everyone is required to learn French; voluntary Spanish immersion programs at Phoenix and Talent elementary schools; and the introduction of Mandarin at schools such as Scenic and Ruch that are taking advantage of grant-funded Mandarin teachers.
If parents can afford it, they can send their children to private schools where it’s more likely the study of second languages is compulsory, even in the first grade. Ashland’s Siskiyou (Waldorf) School, Medford’s Sacred Heart School, Eagle Point’s St. John Lutheran School and Shady Point Seventh-day Adventist School are all examples of private schools that require the study of another language.
In contrast, nearly 100 percent of school-age students in European Union countries are enrolled in a foreign language, and it’s often not just a second language but also a third or fourth language, Lovejoy says.
English language instruction begins at age 6 in Austria and age 8 in Germany and Spain, according to a 2000 study, “Foreign Language Teaching: What the United States Can Learn from Other Countries,” by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Linguistics. Germans and Austrians are also required to study a third language such as French or Italian, CAL found.
“We are the only industrial country where kids don’t learn another language,” says Ashland schools Superintendent Juli Di Chiro. “We are out of line with the rest of the world in terms of second language instruction. Nationally, it’s a problem we’re not doing more.”
Di Chiro says funding is the main obstacle to providing more second-language instruction despite ever-present demand for it among parents in the Ashland district. Parents have been asking for a Spanish immersion program like the one in the Phoenix-Talent School District, but so far, Ashland hasn’t had the resources to fulfill their wish, she says.
The scarcity of second language instruction in U.S. public schools isn’t likely to end any time soon, Lovejoy says.
Recent school budget cuts because of the recession have taken a toll on second language instruction.
When schools reduce expenses, second languages are often among the first targets for cuts, not only because of a lack of financial resources but also because federal and state governments have not made them a priority.
Thirty-four out of 50 states, including Oregon, don’t require any credits in a foreign language to graduate from high school. Oregon’s new diploma standards for 2012 require three credits from any of three categories: a second language, art and/or career and technical education. Still, study of a second language in high school remains optional, albeit recommended because of university admission requirements, which usually include two years of a second language.
“Learning another language allows students to problem solve better and learn other skills more readily because they’re not dependent on one set of information,” says Central Point schools Superintendent Randy Gravon. “It’s a good education tool. We just haven’t embraced it in this country.”
Rare inroads in second language instruction in Jackson County public schools have come as a result of grants by Hanban and the U.S. Department of Education, which have brought Mandarin classes to 14 schools — some of which wouldn’t have second-language instruction otherwise. But educators fear those programs are likely to disappear if and when any of those special funding streams dry up.
There’s also a lingering belief among some Americans that there’s no need to know a second language because most of the world knows English.
Those who think learning another language isn’t important should reconsider, says Ray Johnson, superintendent of Cascade Christian High School and Grace Christian School in Medford.
“I’ve told my own children to take at least two years if not more of a second language and to get serious about it because it will give you an edge in getting a job,” Johnson says.
Grace Christian requires all pupils in first through eighth grades to study Spanish. Cascade students are required to take at least two years of either Spanish or French, but they may study both languages for all four years if they wish.


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Ohio Hires Native Spanish Teachers for Students

The article below is by Melissa Griffy Seeton in, October 15, 2010.   I think Ohio is genuinely interested in helping its students learn the Spanish language. Also by bringing students into direct contact with someone from the Spanish-speaking world, they will be able to learn first-hand about the culture and history of the region.  My Spanish teacher is from Argentina originally, and aside from being a great instructor, she has taught me a lot  about her native land through history and literature!

Here’s the article:

The distance between the United States and Spain is 4,754 miles. That’s a little less than the trek from Ohio to California and back, but the cultural differences span much larger divides.

Spain was a country most students at Oakwood Middle School learned about in textbooks. Now, they are discovering there’s more to a country than occupying foreign borders.

Just two months ago, few students had heard of Asturias, the area north of Madrid, which borders the Cantabrian Sea. But across Oakwood’s cafeteria in room L7, Olaya Cuervo teaches them Spanish greetings and customs, colors and numbers.

“Hola!,” she says as a group of sixth-graders enters her classroom. They respond.

It’s just the beginning of what educators in the Plain Local and Jackson Local school districts hope their students will master during the next three years.


At 28, Cuervo is already a world traveler and seasoned teacher.

She’s journeyed across Europe and the United States, studying in Spain and Denmark. For the past decade, Cuervo has been teaching English and Spanish at a private academy in Spain and tutoring Spanish families.

Although she had five years of training at a university in Spain, she credits a three-month stay in Pittsburgh, where she has family, for her knowledge of American culture and understanding of the English language. During her time there, she volunteered at an area hospital.

Cuervo is participating in the Ohio Department of Educa-tion’s Visiting Spanish Teacher Program, part of a larger nationwide initiative to bring native Spanish-speaking teachers to the United States. School districts were required to apply, and compete for the opportunity to participate. Cuervo will share her time between Plain and Jackson schools.

“I am very privileged to be teaching in the United States and specifically in Canton,” said Cuervo, who was one of 200 chosen for similar jobs across the country; 4,000 people applied for the positions. “My goal is to peak students’ interest in Spanish in hopes they will continue their studies later on.”

Each district will use Cuervo’s talents a little differently. Plain’s program is designed to introduce fifth- and sixth-graders to the Spanish culture and the language.

“You talk about breaking down barriers, and exposing our students to other cultures,” said Brent May, superintendent of Plain Local Schools. “For students to learn from a native Spanish speaker, that’s invaluable.”

Jackson’s program focuses on teaching about 90 sixth-graders Spanish I over a two-year period. The idea is ambitious, acknowledges Linda Salom, Jackson’s curriculum coordinator, as many school districts do not introduce a foreign language until the eighth or ninth grades.

“Learning another language requires you to retrain your brain, but students learn grammar better and other subjects better,” she said. “We would love to have a windfall of money to offer a second language in our elementary schools because studies show younger students grasp foreign languages faster.”

For the past three years, Jackson hosted a visiting Chinese teacher through a similar Ohio Department of Education program.

“We recognize students have to be learn not only a foreign language to compete in the 21st century, but they have to be aware of where the United States fits in,” Salom said.


Deborah Robinson, a world languages consultant at the Ohio Department of Education, said her department is busy working to adopt new foreign language standards for the state’s public schools.

The federal government has conducted a number of studies, including one at the Ohio State University, to identify which foreign languages are critical to Ohio. Spanish is one of them.

Since 2005, the state Department of Education has seen an increase in the number of students enrolled in a foreign language course. And while there are a number of language immersion schools, in which students learn from a teacher speaking in English and Spanish, popping up throughout the country, Robinson says, “We are just woefully behind.

“We do live in a global economy and we are citizens of the world,” she said. “I think it is quite naive to think we can do business with others in the world if our only language is English. Report after report comes out about our deficiency to protect ourselves. The understanding of other languages and other cultures is crucial to our success.”

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