Languages Translate to a World of Learning

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Despite a rise in the number and quality of language programs in the United States, convincing your school community that they need an interdisciplinary world languages program can take some finesse.

But it's worth any hurdles because language study can be a launching pad to create a more globally focused school, and open doors for your students when they go off into the world. "Our kids are going to be working in global marketplaces. We can't pretend that isn't coming," says Shari Albright, chief academic officer at the Asia Society.

Despite this imperative, school board members and parents may balk at the idea of starting or expanding a language program, and especially for critical languages like Chinese. For one, they may not be immediately convinced of the benefits to learning a second language, especially if their students tend to stay close to home after leaving high school and college. Or, a school's existing Chinese program may not be doing enough to keep students engaged.

Connect the Global with the Local

Albright says when she went to Mathis, Texas, to start an internationally focused school, she worried about possible opposition. School board members wondered why they needed an international school if their graduates didn't leave Texas. It took just one guy on the school board--a welder--to turn the tide in favor of the program, Albright says. The man pointed out that he ran an international business; he made cattle guards--metal grates that keep cattle from wandering away--and exported them to India.

The response, Albright says, was, "Wow, we're having international business right here!" 

You might also convince reluctant parents by showing them their own clothing labels, as one New York educator did, and pointing out how many of the items they own are made outside US borders.  

Get Beyond Food, Flags, and Festivals

When you start a critical language program, consider how you can get students and the school community to want more. Create penpal programs or establish a sister-school relationship with those who speak the target language. Exchanging letters or emails with students around the world can help your students dispel stereotypes, and give them a first-hand account of what life in other world regions.

Simulate, as much as you can, the experience of life in another country. Take kids on a field trip to a place such as Heifer Ranch, in Perryville, Arkansas, where students live like they would if they were in a developing country. It's key to make sure that when your students see hardships in other countries they are able to empathize, rather than simply glad they don't live there.

Create an Interdisciplinary Program

Emphasize how learning Chinese, for example, can help students learn about the world by tying learning about China across disciplines. English teachers can include books by Chinese-American authors and history teachers can introduce expanded lessons on Chinese history.

Even biology teachers can offer a supportive lesson on environmental science when language teachers discuss current affairs, such as China's environmental policies, Albright says.

"We see time and again that it's the school's language program that drives a school to look more deeply into what else they can do in the curriculum," Albright says. "When a school says ‘we want to have a global vision,' then suddenly your (language) program looks terribly important."

Author: Alexandra Moses
January 2010

Discussion questions

What would you do to convince your school community that it needs a Chinese language program?

How do you make sure students studying Chinese gain a global understanding and leave the language class wanting to know more?