North Carolina: In language debate, the key is proficiency

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue May 15 14:32:47 UTC 2007

Point of View:  Published: May 14, 2007 12:30 AM Modified: May 14, 2007
01:20 AM

In language debate, the key is proficiency
David B. Young

CHAPEL HILL - At first glance, the news was puzzling: the Globally
Competitive Students committee of the State Board of Education recently
recommended dropping a proposal to require all North Carolina high school
students to take two years of a foreign language. Globally competitive
students who can't speak a foreign language? In the age of the global
marketplace? When the United States has national security concerns about a
lack of foreign-language speakers? When demographers project continued
dramatic growth in our Spanish-speaking population? The board members,
however, were right to reconsider and delay a decision.  There are
legitimate questions about how the proposal fits into other curriculum
changes under discussion. Taking more time makes sense.

In fact, now is a good time to consider the bigger picture. With a few
exceptions, nationally and statewide, our system of teaching international
languages is broken. We must rethink our outmoded strategy and retool it
for the 21st century global economy. We do our children a disservice by
not preparing them for communication across cultures and languages. For
too long we have accepted the notion that it's OK for students to simply
take a foreign language but not actually learn it. We have spent decades
of class time and untold dollars in a system that has created very few
citizens proficient in any international language.

How many times have you heard someone say -- or joked yourself -- "I took
four years of [insert language here], but I can barely speak a word"? Our
new mantra must be: Proficiency, proficiency, proficiency.

GREAT IDEAS ABOUND FROM LEADERS in education, public policy and business,
such as the North Carolina in the World coalition, the Public School Forum
of N.C., the Foreign Language Association of N.C., World View and others.
One innovative proposal is to build language "pipelines" in each school
district to guide interested students through integrated language programs
as they move through kindergarten, elementary, middle and high schools.
Other ideas include:

 ENHANCED METHODOLOGY -- Developing, replicating and expanding successful
programs, such as language immersion.

 EARLIER IS BETTER -- Moving teachers, resources and classes to
kindergarten-eighth grade, not high school, because young students learn
languages more easily. (Middle and high schools can offer elective

 MORE MONEY -- Providing adequate and flexible state funding.

 CHANGE COLLEGE ENTRANCE REQUIREMENTS -- Aligning university admittance
policies with the new K-12 proficiency strategy.

We should establish two language tracks. First, Spanish for all students.
Second, electives in what the U.S. government deems "critical languages"
-- such as Mandarin, Arabic and Farsi -- for students with an aptitude.

Why Spanish for all students? It's a simple matter of economics. Spanish
is the world's fourth most-commonly spoken language (behind Chinese,
English and Hindi). Latin American nations are key trade partners. (Mexico
is the second-biggest destination for North Carolina exports, worth $1.8
billion last year and trailing only Canada.) Creating an internationally
competitive work force requires Spanish speakers -- and can help local
communities create jobs.

Job-seekers with Spanish skills also are more marketable here at home.
Today, more Americans speak Spanish than any language but English. And by
2050, demographers project one-quarter of the nation's population will be
Hispanic. Already, the influence of Hispanic cultures is growing quickly
across North Carolina.

language leader worth emulating. Loudoun runs a FLES program (foreign
language in the elementary schools). All 45 elementary schools teach
Spanish to all their students. Starting in the seventh grade, youngsters
can elect to continue studying Spanish (or French, German or Latin)
through high school. Loudoun also has a pilot program in Mandarin.

Elementary Spanish instruction takes just 30 to 60 minutes a week and does
not detract from other subjects. Studies show that test scores tend to
rise in math and English among second-language learners. And early results
from Loudoun's FLES program are promising: Fourth-graders were tested, and
they met or exceeded the grade-level proficiency standards of the American
Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Closer to home, North Carolina boasts a number of innovative language
initiatives, including immersion programs and specialized schools, such as
Charlotte's Smith Academy of International Languages. The challenge is to
replicate, expand and link these kinds of efforts in a more comprehensive

Years ago, North Carolina was considered a national leader in language
study, with an admirable goal of K-12 language instruction for all
students. With thoughtful reform, we can return to language-learning
prominence and ensure our students are ready for the global economy.

This time, though, let's not focus on the number of students enrolled in
language classes, but rather on the number of students effectively trained
for proficient communication. Let's make it our mission to never again
hear the phrase, "I took four years of [insert language here], but I can
barely speak a word."

(David B. Young is president of the Visiting International Faculty Program
in Chapel Hill.)

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