Educators say acquiring language skills key to becoming global citizens

  • Hampshire Regional spanish teacher Penelope Walker talks with former student and 2012 HRHS alumna Haley Richard of Southampton. Walker is going abroad to teach one year in Madrid, Spain.

  • Spanish books in Hampshire Regional spanish teacher Penelope Walker's classroom. Walker is going abroad for a year to teach in Madrid, Spain.

  • Hampshire Regional Spanish teacher Penelope Walker is going abroad for a year to teach in Madrid.

  • Spanish books in Hampshire Regional spanish teacher Penelope Walker's classroom. Walker is going abroad for a year to teach in Madrid, Spain.

  • World map made of colorful speech bubbles. Translating, language interpreter and communication vector concept illustration Qvasimodo—Getty Images/iStockphoto

Published: 8/17/2016 12:05:43 AM

As area school officials prepare students to become global citizens, acquiring foreign language skills remains a critical though challenging endeavor in school districts, they say.

High schools in Northampton, Easthampton, Westhampton and Amherst have traditionally maintained a commitment to French, Spanish and, in some cases, Latin instruction — often as budgets are cut or rearranged. But, in recent years, local and global demand for alternative options has resulted in school leaders revisiting their current foreign language offerings.

“It’s a changing world,” said William Moebius, chairman of the department of languages, literatures and cultures at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The ones that are spoken in large numbers across the world — those could be considered the fingers of the hand,” he said.

While Spanish and French are among those widely spoken languages, he concluded, Chinese, German, Arabic and Portuguese, a language also spoken in Brazil, increasingly “have currency.”

Data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education shows that in Massachusetts during the 2014-15 school year, Spanish classes had over four times the enrollment of any other language, followed by French and then Latin. Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, German and American Sign Language showed enrollment between approximately 2,000 to 8,000 students, while several hundred students opted for Japanese, Arabic and Russian.

At Hampshire Regional High School in Westhampton, students are embracing languages outside of the school’s robust Spanish and French programs. Principal Kristen Smidy said juniors and seniors have taken virtual courses in German, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Latin. The interactive online courses include speaking segments, which students complete by talking into a microphone.

A changing landscape in foreign policy, international relations and global business has been a key factor in student demand for less traditional language skills, Smidy said.

The classic Romance languages continue to be important and won’t fade away, according to Moebius. But, he said, schools with the funding to pay salaries for additional language teachers would be “well advised to broaden the palette.”

For example, he said, “if you’re an American engineer or chemist and you want a job, you’d be wise to learn German.” The U.S. is home to 2,000 German companies, Moebius said.

Amherst-Pelham Regional High School has historically offered six foreign languages as a regular part of its curriculum, but the school has cut German and Russian due to a decline in enrollment, Principal Mark Jackson said.

The school now offers French, Spanish, Latin and Chinese.

Jackson said proficiency in a second language is a prized skill that children appreciate.

“There is a sense of loss in cutting them,” he said, adding that virtually all students in the district sign up to study a foreign language. Jackson hopes to add those languages back, but said it’s “not financially in the cards,” right now.

If money was not an obstacle, he’d like to offer Arabic classes, too.

“If we can communicate better and understand each other better, that is a positive addition to the planet,” he said.

Financial realities

Area schools face challenges in balancing economic realities with building out diverse language offerings that reflect real-world demand.

For most, finances do not allow for unlimited options.

“Schools are complex organizations and if you move away from any one language in exchange for another, how do you make that transition meaningfully?” Hampshire Regional Superintendent Craig Jurgensen said.

More than five years ago, a tight budget year at Hampshire Regional led to discussion of reducing French classes. Spanish has continually seen higher enrollment, according to Smidy, the high school principal.

A group of parents advocated heavily against that decision, said Jurgensen. He said those parents felt their children had made a commitment to French and wanted to see that through.

Some compromises were made in combining French levels, and budgets eventually improved.

Jurgensen said the district continues to revisit decisions on language offerings and any transition would likely include laying off some language teachers and hiring others, he said. Hampshire officials will continue to survey students, examine data and research the value of particular languages.

There has also been some advocacy for Latin, Jurgensen said.

Students in Northampton have that option in the classroom, beginning in seventh grade. Although it is no longer a spoken language, Superintendent John Provost said, “there are countless applications in science, medicine, law and as a base for understanding other languages.”

Language demand

An estimated 629 out of 884 Northampton high school students have enrolled as of Aug. 1 to take at least one semester of a foreign language.

Adding diversity of language programs must also be balanced with other areas of study, Provost said.

In 2015, President Barack Obama set a national goal of having 1 million Americans learn Mandarin Chinese by 2020. The language is critical to strengthening U.S. and China relations, he said of the initiative.

Hampshire Regional has seen a demand for in-class Chinese instruction, but Moebius said languages that use a different alphabet are much more difficult to learn in traditional schools.

“There are sounds used in Chinese and Arabic that our throats and mouths don’t make,” he said of native English speakers.

Hadley’s Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School makes that transition easier, Moebius said.

Richard Alcorn, the school’s executive director, has said in the past that most students speak no Chinese when they start, but they leave with high-proficiency skills. The tuition-free public charter school has applied with the state to increase maximum enrollment from 584 to 968 students.

“China is a big trading partner with the United States,” Alcorn said in an April interview with the Gazette. “A pipeline of Chinese speakers is critically important to the nation, the state, and locally, if we are to compete in the global economy.”

Some western Massachusetts public schools are focusing on the rich cultural benefits to language learning with cross-cultural exchange programs.

Easthampton superintendent Nancy Follansbee said new last year was a high school exchange program with students from Chatelain, France. Some 16 students from Chatelain lived with Easthampton families while attending the school for 10 days, and then the arrangement was reversed.

This year, Follansbee said, a similar exchange program with students from Spain will be available.

Hampshire Regional also started an exchange program with France last year.

And the past two years, the school has used a visiting teacher program to bring in language teachers from Spain.

Smidy said the guest teachers come with a “wealth of knowledge from that culture.”

“They know the cool things that kids want to learn,” she continued, “like newest trends and slang.” Smidy said the students also enjoy correcting the teacher’s English skills, so that interaction works both ways.

Students’ worldviews

Across the board, area school officials reported a high emphasis placed on foreign language instruction — regardless of the languages themselves.

“The U.S. itself is becoming a more diverse society, so the expectation is that students will be interacting with a number of individuals with whom English is not their first language,” Provost said. He said being fluent in a second language enhances students’ chance for success in college and career paths.

Jurgensen said the greater Hampshire Regional community values foreign language, “particularly in the way it links to a student’s worldview.”

Conversations around which languages to prioritize vary greatly on many factors, such as how you define the word “useful,” Moebuis said. Following suit with local school leaders, he agreed that language allows students a chance to move outside of familiar territory. For others, diverse language skills become a business advantage. Those who choose to study their heritage language “begin to understand” their culture in a deeper way, he said. The dominant second language in one’s community should be a factor, too, he said.

His biggest recommendation: “Look at where the creativity is these days, and follow it.

“The individual should think, ‘How can I be a part of that world?’” he said.

Starting sooner

To start that process sooner, several area principals and superintendents agreed they would like to offer full language programs to younger students.

“Research indicates that young children tend to learn languages more easily than older children or adults,” said Follansbee.

This year, Easthampton is bringing back its World Language program in French and Spanish for students in fifth-to -eighth grade. The middle school course was cut a few years ago due to lack of funding.

Similarly, Provost said, with more funding for languages he’d be interested in “getting students opportunities to begin at the elementary level.”

One place for immediate emphasis, Moebius said, is “learning the grammar of the language you speak naturally.” Some students today are lacking that background, and it’s crucial in setting a strong foundation for second-language proficiency, Moebius said.

“The whole notion of learning a language, no matter what it is, stimulates the brain and thought,” Jurgensen said. “It’s just a good intellectual endeavor.”

Sarah Crosby can be reached at


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