Can we talk the talk? - East Valley Tribune: News

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Can we talk the talk?

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Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2006 5:09 am

It’s almost 8 p.m. on a Thursday, but Steve Barber’s classroom at Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale isn’t 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.

America’s 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 President’s 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 Spanish.

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

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

It’s 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 it’s 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 they’d 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 America’s 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 I’ve always felt we haven’t 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 Japanese.

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 animé 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 that’s 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.

It’s 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. “We’ve 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.

“It’s 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 district’s aren’t buying in, citing major hurdles such as finding qualified foreign language instructors.

“It’s not just a question of demand,” said Bev Merrill, director of secondary education in the Chandler Unified School District.

“It’s 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, it’s 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, it’s like, ‘Well done,’ ” she said. “But to have two years of Japanese — that’s a kid that wants a challenge.”

Commonly taught languages in E.V. high schools

• Spanish

• French

• German

• Latin

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 public.

• 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 Spanish.

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

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

  • Discuss

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