Can we talk the talk?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Mar 20 12:55:37 UTC 2006

>>From the East VAlley Tribune, Mesa Arizona

Can we talk the talk?
By Andrea Falkenhagen, Tribune
March 19, 2006

Its almost 8 p.m. on a Thursday, but Steve Barbers classroom at Desert
Mountain High School in Scottsdale isnt empty. A woman dressed in a pink
embroidered pantsuit stands in front of a dozen students, drawing Chinese
characters on the board, and students such as Stephenie Evanuska, 17, take
a stab at pronouncing each word. The room is decorated with books about
China and Korean cuisine, and words in Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and
Korean dot the white board. Recently, Barber, who teaches one of a few
high school East Asian Studies classes in the nation, realized that his
students wanted to learn more than the few words in Mandarin he taught
them. So he organized a night class for the roughly 30 students, taught by
Chinese-American parents.

There's nothing more important right now, he said. Anyone who gets into
business needs to study and understand one of the three (East Asian)
cultures and speak one language, especially Chinese, he said. Americas
economic and national security hinges on students such as Evanuska, who
are motivated enough to study languages like Chinese and Arabic late at
night, earning no credit, said federal government officials and business
leaders. Less than 1 percent of American high school students take the
critical needs languages of Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Farsi,
Turkish, Korean or Japanese, said Thomas Farrell, deputy assistant
secretary for academic programs of the U.S. State Department. Chinese is
offered at just three high schools in the Valley, and outside of the two
Islamic schools, none offer Arabic.

But President Bush is pushing for more such languages to be taught. In his
January State of the Union Address, Bush outlined plans for a new National
Strategic Language Initiative, which will spend $114 million next year to
dramatically increase the number of young Americans learning critical need
languages. Experts claim that if these students become fluent, they will
find ample job opportunities. The New York Times has reported that the FBI
has failed to meet its hiring targets for linguists in more than half of
52 languages. Diplomacy also hinges on growing more fluent speakers of
foreign languages, which will enable America to articulate its positions
in foreign news media, Farrell said. For example, during the Presidents
recent visit to Pakistan, a local newspaper might have wanted an American
opinion but the State Department lacks the capacity to respond to all the
requests, he said.


For decades, high school students have learned Spanish, French, German or
Latin course offerings that, for the most part, remained relatively
unchanged, said Marty Abbott, director of education at the American
Council of Foreign Languages, an organization of more than 8,000 foreign
language educators.

More than 70 percent of students who take foreign languages choose

Locally, school districts are far from the cutting edge of language

The Paradise Valley Unified School District offers Spanish, French and
German, and the Scottsdale Unified School District adds Latin to that

Its similar across the nation, where some 1 million students study French
a language spoken by 70 million people worldwide while fewer than 40,000
students study Mandarin, spoken by 1.3 billion people. The past five years
have seen an explosion of Chinese programs, mostly in communities with a
high Chinese population on the coasts, and Arabic is being picked up in a
few school districts in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., and Detroit
areas, which have high Arab populations, Abbott said. A lot of the
programs are starting up because of parental pressure. So its a real
grass-roots movement, said Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign language
education at the Center for Applied Linguistics, a nonprofit think tank in
Washington that studies languages and education.

Meanwhile, in the East Valley, students such as Joe Bodell, who have an
interest in less-common languages, must dig to find tutors in local ethnic
communities, or take college classes. When I sat down to choose (classes)
in high school, I had Latin, German, French or Spanish, he said. I
remember wishing, man, I wish theyd offer something like Greek or
something else interesting. Mesa Community College, which offers night
classes in languages like Arabic, enrolled 62 youths in foreign language
courses this semester, including an 11-year-old girl taking Russian, said
department head Marcella Fierro. Bodell, 22, now attends Scottsdale
Community College and will study Arabic at the American University in
Dubai next year, hoping to work for the State Department.


The United States will become less competitive in the global economy
because of a shortage of strong foreign language programs, according to a
report released last month by the Committee for Economic Development, a
Washington-based think tank made up of corporate executives and university
presidents. We are finding ourselves as a country much more exposed to
other cultures that fall outside the traditional Western European groups,
said Charles Kolb, CED president. Annual trade with Asia is approaching
$800 billion outpacing Americas trade with Europe, the reports states.
Locally, businesses such as Intel and Honeywell are increasing their
global connections, expecting growth to come from emerging markets in
India, China, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. Even in
countries such as India, where many people speak English, it can still be
important to know the local languages, Kolb said, because it establishes a
rapport with co-workers.

It goes beyond what do we need to know to close the deal, Kolb said. The
CED report cites business blunders caused by a lack of languages or
cultural awareness such as a Microsoft map that showed Kashmir lying
outside the boundaries of India, and a video game that offended Arab
countries by including Arabic chanting of the Quran to accompany violent
scenes in the game. Tim Wong, who teaches Mandarin at Arizona State
University, said the Valley is fertile ground for more Mandarin classes.
Yet the low numbers of Chinese-learners at ASU reflect the low numbers of
high school Mandarin courses found only at Central High School in Phoenix,
Xavier Preparatory Academy and BASIS Scottsdale charter school.  In fact,
many Chinese language students come from out of state, he said. At the
college level, we have always had a pretty steady enrollment here at ASU,
though Ive always felt we havent hit our potential, said Wong, who has
taught since 1974. This is the largest school in the whole United States
and on any given semester we have something like 130 people taking
Chinese. There should be more.

While no East Valley schools offer Korean lessons, a couple offer

Highland High School in the Gilbert Unified School District offers three
years of the language and will soon be adding a fourth year, said
instructor Joni Koehn.

Japanese anim and books have become popular in American culture, which has
piqued more students interest in learning the language, she explained.

Michael Bartnett, 16, said his interest in computer programming and
designing video games led him to sign up for the first-year Japanese class
at Highland.

There is a big difference between the culture of the Japanese games and
American games, he said. It would be really helpful to be able to
communicate between the two cultures.


In the Middle East and Central Asia, the lack of language experts working
for the government has created a grim picture, for foreign policy, Farrell
said. The State Department is unable to fill all its translator positions,
and thats just the start. We need to be able to communicate directly with
foreign nationals, to be able to read things directly, rather than use the
filter of translator or interpreter, he said. Its especially important
when trying to spread American messages and stopping the spread of rumors
that can damage policy, he said. We have extremely scarce resources to be
able to go on Al-Jazeera or another Arabic language broadcast and
articulate the U.S. government position in that language, he said. Weve
got lots of wonderful people who can be articulate in English or French or
Spanish, but they are as rare as hens teeth when it comes to Arabic, Farsi
or Turkish.

He said translators of Chinese and Russian are a little easier to find,
probably due to the fact that during the Cold War, some schools offered
courses in those languages.


School districts could help fill the void cited by business and government
officials, while at the same time helping themselves, said Scottsdale
Superintendent John Baracy, who said his district is considering adding
Russian, Chinese or Arabic in several years. The College Board will be
offering Advanced Placement exams in Chinese and Japanese next year, and
Russian exams will be coming soon, which means classes in these languages
could attract highachieving teens from across the Valley. Its important
that we be able to offer these choices for students who continue to demand
the high-level curriculum offerings, he said. In the Mesa Unified School
District, a few students are taking an after-school Mandarin Chinese class
at Dobson High School, a community class shared with the general public.
That class and a second-year Mandarin course will be offered next year.
But other districts arent buying in, citing major hurdles such as finding
qualified foreign language instructors. Its not just a question of demand,
said Bev Merrill, director of secondary education in the Chandler Unified
School District.

Its very difficult to find instructors that are highly qualified to teach
these courses. So while the federal government is encouraging schools to
teach less-common languages, its also requiring that foreign language
teachers are highly qualified meaning school officials cannot simply go
into ethnic communities and find native speakers. Less than 1 percent of
undergraduate degrees are awarded in foreign languages nationwide, Farrell
said, providing a miniscule stream of possible teachers. Rhodes and the
CED both claim that federal legislation such as the No Child Left Behind
Act has placed so much emphasis on math and English that it has crowded
out time and funding for foreign languages.

Yet especially in high-achieving school districts with many motivated
students, districts might see increased pressure from parents and students
to offer some different languages. The languages also give students a
competitive edge, said Koehn. To say that you took a couple years of
Spanish, its like, Well done, she said. But to have two years of Japanese
thats a kid that wants a challenge.

Commonly taught languages in E.V. high schools





Less commonly taught languages

 Mandarin: Offered at Central High School in Phoenix, BASIS Scottsdale and
Xavier Preparatory Academy. Dobson High School in the Mesa Unified School
District offers Mandarin class after school, shared with the general

 Japanese: Offered at Cave Creek Unified School District, Gilbert Unified
School District.

Community college offerings

 Mesa Community College offers Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew,
Italian, Japanese, Latin, Portuguese, Russian, American Sign Language and

 Scottsdale Community College offers French, German, Italian, Japanese,
Pima, Sign Language and Spanish.

 Chandler-Gilbert Community College offers Arabic, French, Sign Language
and Spanish.

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