More US schools teaching in 2 or more tongues
Sept. 3, 2007
NEW YORK - Days before the start of the school year, Fabrice Jaumont walked
out of the French Embassy's mansion on Fifth Avenue, his arms filled with boxes
containing books, DVDs and CDs in his native tongue.
He loaded them into the trunk of a car. Destination: the Bronx.
The 35-year-old diplomat was headed to the public Jordan L. Mott middle school
in one of the nation's poorest districts, where on Tuesday, some students will
arrive for science and other classes - taught in French.
Four new dual-language programs are starting in the city this fall. Three are in
French, for the first time, including one at a school in Manhattan's Harlem
area, and the fourth is in Chinese.
"It's about time," says Jaumont, the education attache at the French Embassy in
Manhattan, the cultural branch of the main embassy in Washington.
"This is a competitive country, and if Americans want to compete globally, they
won't be first anymore if their language skills are not good," says the
energetic young diplomat, whose English is peppered with American jargon.
The new programs are part of a national trend to teach American children
subjects such as math, social studies and science in a foreign language.
This fall, several hundred thousand youngsters across America are headed to
taxpayer-funded classes taught in Spanish, Hebrew, Haitian Creole, Korean,
Russian and other languages.
On Manhattan's Lower East Side, children at the public Shuang Wen Academy spend
much of their school day in classes taught in Mandarin Chinese. The school is so
popular among parents of non-ethnic Chinese children eager to prepare their
offspring for a changing world that there's a waiting list for admission.
In each class, about half the students are fluent in Chinese, the other half in
English; some are immigrants, others American-born. That fifty-fifty approach is
applied to more than 10,000 other New York City children who voluntarily signed
up for the city Department of Education's 67 dual-language programs (compared to
51 in 2004). Each child also starts with separate lessons in the language.
The students end up helping one another with a second language, while learning a
subject together. "It's very organic," says Shimon Waronker, 38, principal at
the Mott school.
The thought of taking a social science class in French excited 11-year-old
Pamela Cruz, who is already fluent in English and Spanish.
"I didn't like school that much. Now I really want to go," says the
sixth-grader, who also signed up for guitar classes in French, a language she
says "sounds kind of funny, but beautiful."
Her father, Enio Cruz, a Guatemalan immigrant who works as a housekeeper, is
thrilled. "It's good for her future," he says. "She'll be able to meet more
people and have more chances to work better."
In a global economy where about 1 billion people speak Chinese, and almost 400
million Spanish, the two languages are at the top of the list of classes taught
in a foreign language at more than 300 public schools nationwide.
More than two-thirds are in Spanish, according to the Center for Applied
Linguistics in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization that researches issues
related to language in a society. About 14,000 children are taking classes in
French - including in Chicago, Miami, Boston and Washington, says Jaumont.
Not to be confused with controversial bilingual education designed to mainstream
non-English-speaking children, subjects taught in a foreign language are
designed to make a child fluent in speaking and writing two languages. Most of
the children start such classes already in elementary school, or even in
There are more than twice as many American public school students getting a
multilingual education now as there were a decade ago, according to the Center
for Applied Linguistics.
U.S. government funding of such education is fueling a heated question: Does it
make sense for American public school children to learn in foreign languages, at
"Absolutely," says Waronker, 38, whose Bronx school population is 80 percent
Hispanic and 20 percent black. Mott was once among New York's so-called "Dirty
Dozen" schools, where drugs-and-violence driven gangs ruled until Waronker
arrived three years ago.
Of a total 700 students, 120 in the fifth and sixth grades have signed up for
science and social studies classes taught in a foreign language - 60 in Spanish
and 60 in French. The school has a few dozen students who come from
"What we've seen here is that students who take languages do better in other
subjects, and they score better on standardized tests," says Waronker, a
Chilean-born Orthodox Jew who was once a U.S. Army intelligence officer.
That's his answer to critics who argue the new approach comes at the expense of
traditional teaching that prepares a student for mainstream American life.
At his school, the principal has added a little bonus: Physical education taught
in German by an Austrian coach.
Maria Santos, who heads the Department of Education's office of English language
learners, said research supports the conclusion that "the brain benefits from
learning two languages. It gains much more flexibility, in any subject."
French is spoken by about 250 million people in more than 50 countries but is no
longer the most commonly used international language of diplomacy - English is.
Asked whether French remains a good choice despite the rise of other languages,
the polyglot Bronx principal smiles.
"When kids learn other languages, they start seeing connections and the mind
develops faster - it doesn't matter what language it is," says Waronker, who
speaks English, Spanish and Hebrew. "The goal of such an education is to build
confidence in a child, to make a better American citizen who can fit in