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Should kids speak in more tongues?

Brittany Fleming signed up for a French class in sixth grade simply because she liked the way the words sounded. She started taking Spanish as a junior at Seminole High School because she wanted to learn a second language.

Now, as she begins planning for a career in engineering, the 18-year-old wants to study German and Japanese.

Students like Fleming are not unique, says a Florida lawmaker who wants to broaden opportunities for students interested in languages. But Rep. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, thinks the state should look beyond the old standards — Spanish, French, German and Latin — which have been de rigueur in most school districts for decades.

"Our children are competing with children in other countries," said Sachs, who along with Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, has introduced legislation designed to make it easier for schools to offer languages not commonly taught in the classroom. "We have to keep our Florida schools competitive in the global economy."

To Sachs, that means teaching Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Hindi and the like. Her bill would allow teachers to earn a temporary three-year certification in those languages and several others by passing a test issued by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Currently, those who teach Spanish, French, German and Latin can earn a temporary certification by passing a state test. Those who want to teach a different language, even if it's their native tongue, must have a major or bachelor's degree in that language.

Pinellas world languages supervisor Jan Kucerik agrees with the plan's premise but isn't convinced it would have the intended outcome.

"I do see this as a positive thing," Kucerik said. "But I don't want the public to think that because of legislation like this we automatically would be able to offer a full menu of languages at every high school, because that would not be the case."

High on the list of reasons for caution, Kucerik said, is Florida's class size amendment, which limits high school classes to 25 students.

In the past, she said, schools could offer a handful of lower profile languages to small groups of students, say 15 per class, and then make up for it by enrolling as many as 35 students in more popular classes like Spanish. The class size amendment makes that impossible.

Also of concern to Kucerik would be providing high-quality material for the less frequently taught language courses. As an unfunded measure, the legislation would not provide any money to school districts for the world language programs.

The proposal is finding both critics and cheerleaders among teachers. For some, like Alan Blessing, who teaches classical Greek, Latin and German at Northeast High but also is fluent in Italian, it could provide the opportunity to become certified in another language.

But Blessing says languages like Chinese and Japanese are not as easy as the Romance languages for native English speakers to learn, and are not likely to produce the same level of proficiency in two years.

Seminole High Spanish teacher Livia Wein wonders about that, too.

The obvious solution, says the Argentina-born Wein, is to encourage kids to begin studying a language earlier. But in a crowded middle school schedule, which threatens to become even more hectic if the Legislature approves a bill that would mandate daily P.E., that's not always possible, she acknowledged.

Most parents applaud the idea of expanding language options for their children, especially if those offerings would include Chinese and Japanese. But they're not willing to give up what they have now to make that happen.

"I would definitely like to see more languages available," said Trace Woolverton, whose daughter Brittani is a second-year Spanish student at Lakewood High. "But I'd also like her to learn French, and we only have one teacher who's teaching it."

Lakewood recently decided to end its German program to make room for French. That's the problem with adding new courses, said Kucerik, the languages supervisor. Something always has to give.

Should kids speak in more tongues? 03/14/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 8:12pm]
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