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.”
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.