For all of the scientific, technological, Olympic and other golden accomplishments that Americans are used to having as a source of national pride, there's one concept that the nation as a whole has not grasped--the importance of learning a second language.
"We've lulled ourselves into this idea that the rest of the world speaks English," says Marty Abbott, the point person for a nationwide effort to celebrate 2005 as the Year of Languages.
Sponsored by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the year-long campaign trumpets the benefits of learning a second language for international trade and national security purposes, as well as to improve individuals' mental agility.
Educators and parents have certainly been hearing about these and other benefits over the past several years from language experts. Giving U.S. students a better understanding of the rest of the world is paramount--because of the globalization of society, predominance of foreign trade, large influx of immigrants and aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Yet change in language education is slow.
"Historically as a nation we have not had that economic necessity, we have not had that geographic necessity," says Abbott, director of education at ACTFL and a former administrator. "We have not had the need that other nations have had, so we have allowed students to graduate with knowledge of only one language."
The Year of Languages, featuring a range of activities to promote language studies throughout the year, is helping educators and others focus on raising the bar in this area. ACTFL has designated a monthly theme--such as language advocacy (May), heritage languages (September) and early language learning (October)--with related national events that districts are encouraged to bring home to their communities.
ACTFL leaders are also prodding independent organizations and governmental entities, from the White House to city councils to local school boards, to do as it has done and declare 2005 the Year of Languages. So far nearly 30 entities, including 10 states, several cities and the U.S. Senate, have issued proclamations in support of YOL.
Here's how administrators, teachers and staff in four districts are showing their commitment to the effort:
Fort Worth Independent School District
Fort Worth is home to the oldest livestock show in the country. It's home to the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, as well as corporate giants American Airlines and Radio Shack.
Carrie Harrington also calls Fort Worth home. As director of foreign language studies for the city's school district, she doesn't have the name recognition of a Fortune 500 company or the legacy of an age-old stock show. But she has something similar--Texas-sized enthusiasm for what she does.
While many other U.S. districts spent the first months of this year making plans for the Year of Languages, Harrington had the entire year mapped out long before 2005 began.
"The Year of Languages is crucial to curing monolingualism," she says. "We need to educate the business community, the government, the community at large."
Students in Forth Worth schools alone speak 83 different languages; the city has more than 300 international companies. Just going to the grocery store is a multinational event, Harrington notes.
To that end, she has cast a wide net far beyond the classroom. Events at a prominent museum and local libraries, as well as a charity event, a street festival and the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show, are promoting language learning.
Each month there's something new. And classroom teachers are doing their part, notes French and Japanese teacher Sandie Camp. Her plans include an amplified version of activities she organizes annually--an after-school international food tasting event and a few rounds of the French bowling game "petanque."
"We've fought long and hard over the years to make everyone understand that while English is wonderful, we need to be able to speak another language as well," says Camp, who teaches at Paschal High School.
State officials apparently agree. Beginning with this year's ninth graders, Texas students must complete two language credits to graduate from high school.
Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools
From the Ground Up
The setting was Robinson Secondary School in northern Virginia, but it could have been a more modest and youthful version of the United Nations.
About 600 teachers, parents and students of all grade levels attended the kick-off event for the Year of Languages in Fairfax County Pubic Schools. They participated to varying degrees in a parade of international flags, stage performances representing far reaches of the globe and an array of additional worldly activities--such as Russian egg decorating and Mardi Gras mask making--set up in the school cafeteria.
There was much ground to cover, since Fairfax County students represent more than 150 countries and speak more than 100 different languages. Hence the school system's foreign language program is a natural extension of the community it serves.
Not surprisingly, notes Superintendent Jack Dale, the community "values its diversity as opposed to running from it. ... It's a wonderful, positive mix that exists here."
Fairfax offers classes in 10 languages beyond English--Spanish, French, German, Latin, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, American Sign Language and Arabic. The Chinese, Arabic and Korean programs have come about in the past eight years, all at the request of parents and community members.
"It never comes from above me," explains Paula Patrick, foreign language coordinator. And when there is a request for a new language, the district recommends that class size support be there. Starting out with only, say, 20 students in the introductory course would mean "you may not have many students down the road," Patrick says. You never want to set the children up for that situation."
That's why Fairfax starts new languages out with at least 50 or 60 students. There are now four levels of Arabic and Korean and three levels of Chinese that cater to an increasingly diverse group of 354 students.
While many of the not-so-common language courses started with students who were already native speakers, or the children of native speakers, that has begun to change, Patrick says. A broader cross-section of students has begun to take an interest over the past four to five years.
She attributes that growth to U.S. trade with China and students learning through the media about the international importance of these languages.
Thomasville (N.C.) City Schools
Driven by a desire to help a burgeoning group of Hispanic students in rural Thomasville, veteran teacher Peggy Whitaker has taken it upon herself this year to learn Spanish.
The class she attends with eight other local teachers takes place for an hour every Monday and three hours every other Saturday.
It's time consuming, it's voluntary, and at a glance, it might seem counterintuitive, at least in Whitaker's case. She teaches third, fourth and fifth grade reading--in English.
But for native Spanish speakers who arrive at the school's doorstep with little or no knowledge of English, Whitaker has realized that even being able to speak a word or two in Spanish helps put the youngsters at ease.
"Sometimes they're so frightened," she says, recalling a fifth grader named Edgar who was "frozen with fear" when he arrived in Thomasville from his native Honduras. Drawing on her newly acquired Spanish skills, Whitaker called him a "papucho," or someone who is good looking, and he broke into laughter.
Reaching some students, she says, "takes a smile, a touch, just a word they can understand."
Until now, Thomasville schools have paid teachers only to give the class, but that will change with the recent acquisition of a $290,000 grant from Winston Salem State University. Thomasville will share the grant, which allows teachers to earn a stipend for taking the class, with a neighboring county, says Assistant Superintendent Mike Allred. "Magic happens when you say stipend," he adds. "It transforms the whole thing."
Allred expects many more teachers will sign up for the Spanish classes that have already helped teachers like Whitaker build relationships with an ever growing number of non-English speaking students.
Wedged between Greensboro and Charlotte, Thomasville is known for its furniture industry ties. Like other North Carolina communities, it's also becoming known as an immigrant destination. Eighteen percent of the district's 2,600 students are Hispanic, up from 5 percent less than a decade ago.
For a place like Thomasville, the change is monumental. "We get children every month who do not speak English," says Raiza Guevara, who coordinates the English as a Second Language program at Liberty Drive Elementary School.
It's hardly a population educators could ignore. That's why the district, in addition to offering the Spanish class for teachers, has at least one English as a Second Language teacher and an ESL assistant at each of its four campuses.
Guevara, who teaches the teachers' Spanish class, marvels at the dedication of her nine adult pupils, who are maintaining their full teaching loads. "They have a lot of spirit," she says, "despite the fatigue."
One might think these teachers are now yearning for a quiet, relaxing summer. On the contrary--they're excited about the possibility of honing their new language skills on a trip to Mexico.
Omaha (Neb.) Public Schools
One frigid day in mid-December, two educators stood on a corner in the central business district of Omaha and asked passersby for directions to a popular tourist destination known as the Old Market.
One was Steve Brock, supervisor of foreign languages for the district. The other, middle school Spanish teacher Martha Lerner. Brock asked in German, Lerner in Spanish.
A few people stopped, but most walked by in silence. "I got a fairly brusque response," Brock reports.
Despite that lackluster reception on the street, Brock and Lerner did get a write-up in the local paper and thereby succeeded in snagging some attention for their cause, which is imparting to anyone and everyone--young and old--the importance of learning a second language.
The innovative experiment, as well as Brock's local radio and TV spots, served as Omaha's kick-off for the Year of Languages. The city's commitment to language learning, which includes a reading circle and other staff development activities for teachers of international languages, is indicative of Nebraska's overall attention to languages.
In 2000, the state had the highest percentage, 78 percent, of its high school students enrolled in foreign language classes in the nation. In fact, the number of foreign language students has almost doubled in the past decade, explains Vickie Scow, director of world languages for the Nebraska Department of Education. And like in the rest of the country, the most notable increase has been in Spanish.
Educators say the impetus for growth in Nebraska's language program is twofold. One, there is a general realization that the world is shrinking, Scow says. And two, the development of foreign language teaching standards in the mid 1990s stimulated widespread interest in language learning.
The renewed focus generated a great deal of enthusiasm both in Omaha and at the state level for learning to speak another language, Brock explains.
The city has used the standards as a model and adapted them locally. Teachers help students apply what they've learned in the school setting and beyond. South Omaha's growing Latino population, for example, means "opportunities to participate in cultural events and other activities," he says, "like visiting a store where the employees speak Spanish." With real-world applications like that, the benefits of learning another language become abundantly clear.
Lucy Hood is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who covers education and international issues.