Schools lag in language education

Jackson County schools, like those across the U.S., lag behind other nations in learning second languages
Qi Jing instructs a Mandarin class at Scenic Middle School in Central Point on Wednesday. Mail Tribune / Julia MooreJulia Moore

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.

"Our thought was the younger the child is exposed to language, the easier it is for them to learn it," Johnson says. "We know they're sponges, and we recognize a second language is what the world is all about, and in our own valley, we are seeing more Spanish speakers, so it seemed like a natural progression."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.

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