Educators, however, say the value of learning foreign languages goes far beyond being able to go on vacation and ask what an item costs or where the bathroom is; it not only gives students a better insight into another country's culture but also opens their minds to learning in general and builds their confidence about their place in the world.
Local public schools offer foreign language classes and even language immersion. Most of the city's private schools, especially the higher grades, offer Spanish and French, and a number also have Latin. These three are the most common: Spanish because of its prevalent use not only in the United States but throughout the world, French because of its ties to this area's history, and Latin because it is the foundation upon which other languages, law and medical vocabularies are based.
"The world is fast becoming a global village," says Anna Palacios, head of the foreign language department at De La Salle High School. "It is very important to be able to communicate, both in writing and by speaking. Also, French and Spanish are major languages of the international community today. Additionally, one broadens one's knowledge of one's own language by studying language in which it was rooted.
"We offer Spanish because it is the official language of 21 countries, and we offer French because of our deeply rooted culture, which is tied to other French-speaking nations in the world."
Ellen Cohen, chair of the Spanish department at Metairie Park Country Day, says Spanish in particular is important because it is the second most commonly spoken language in America, and she adds that students who study it as a second language find it helps them better understand English as well.
"I think that to be a well-rounded student you need to learn a foreign language," she says. "Certainly in New Orleans and the United States, knowing Spanish is essential and learning the grammar, which is so integral to their understanding of Spanish, helps in learning English grammar. Students tell me they learn comprehension skills for English that they didn't have until they took Spanish, because you have to focus more on the actual structure of the language and how it works together."
Students also find a knowledge of Spanish helps them to do better on SAT tests required for college admission because the Latin roots in Spanish are so common in vocabulary and other areas of that standardized test, Cohen says. At Country Day, students begin their exposure to foreign languages early, in pre-K and kindergarten, in order to become familiar with the sounds of the language. "When they get into it later, they have formed the basis of understanding and they aren't intimidated," Cohen says. "That has to be the trend for language: start the kids as early as possible with as many (languages) as possible. It opens their minds so much to see the words showing up again in other regions of the world."
Some schools, such as Academy of the Sacred Heart, help their students go beyond the offerings of their own school's curriculum by encouraging enrollment in Louisiana Virtual School, an online program developed by a partnership between the Louisiana Department of Education and the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts. That program offers online instruction as well as CD ROMs and provides standards-based documentation for credit to a "facilitator" within the student's school.
Schools around the metropolitan area also offer less traditional offerings. Ecole Bilingue, for instance, is a French immersion institution that focuses on French as its main language beginning with children as young as 2. The school currently goes only through the second grade but is adding a grade a year and plans to continue adding classes through the eighth grade.
Julie Fabian, administrative director and board president at Ecole Bilingue, says the curriculum opens doors for the children later in life and tends to develop disciplined students. "Learning a foreign language causes a physiological change in the brain," she says. "Their brains are working at a higher level, and it improves their skill levels across the board, their thinking skills and analytical skills. They're better thinkers and better learners and tend to be more highly motivated students."
In a flip of the traditional, Ecole Bilingue begins teaching English in the second grade and for some that is their "foreign" language because they come from French-speaking families who have moved to the area for their careers, mostly in the oil, restaurant and travel industries, Fabian says. The curriculum, however, helps students achieve well in both languages.
"The very interesting thing ... is that having this level of immersion in the language will increase (students') English arts abilities over time," she says. "They usually catch up and surpass their English-only counterparts in English. These kids do tend to score higher in English; they're taking a different approach to their own language."
Forward-thinking parents like the immersion curriculum because they believe it prepares their children for an adult life with broader professional opportunities, she says. "French is still a language of finance in Europe; it's important in the United Nations; it's used in many nations around the world. It's still an important language to learn."
Other unique offerings in New Orleans-area schools include Chinese, Greek and Hebrew. Isidore Newman, for example, offers Spanish, French, Latin and Hebrew and is the only high school in the state that offers Chinese. "A number of our students who choose Chinese expect to be working in the field, perhaps a family business in China, or they are interested in the culture," says Lena Lucietto, chair of Newman's foreign language department.
Newman also participates in foreign exchange programs that place students with families in France and Spanish-speaking countries in order for them to better learn the culture and increase their aptitude in speaking the languages. Students from those countries also come to Newman as part of the exchange.
"It adds so much," Lucietto says. "It's much different than going on a trip. You relate to the family you are staying with, but you also meet a whole group of students who are going through this experience, and their use of the language improves. It really enhances the student's ability to deal with the language, and the culture is such an important aspect. The very tools we use are imbedded in the culture."
No less unusual than Chinese is Jesuit High School's offering of Greek, which some students follow through a five-year program. Between 40 and 60 students each year enroll in the first four levels of Greek, and about a dozen seniors continue through the final year.
Mitch Chapoton, head of the classic language department at Jesuit, which also offers Latin, says he believes the boys who take the courses are enriched more than they expect to be. "Not all students love it, but I think they like the novelty of it; it's just different, it's a puzzle to them," he says. "It expands their vocabulary to a point that they don't even know until a few years later. It's a very analytical language in terms of putting a puzzle together. It's a big accomplishment; it's doing something not many people do."
Beyond the challenge, students later find that Greek helps to prepare them for professional studies such as law and medicine, both of which draw strongly from Greek traditions. During their studies at Jesuit, students read Homer's Odyssey in its original text during the second year, and in their third they tackle the New Testament, prose and history written in Greek.
"When they're doing stuff in the language it makes their notions of what they've seen or heard about ancient Greece seem real. It is real, but this makes it more alive, it's not just myth," Chapoton says. "I would venture to say that there are very few schools in the country that [offer a five-year curriculum in Greek]. It's just part of the Jesuit mission of classical education."
At New Orleans Jewish Day School, the foreign language focus is on Hebrew as part of the spiritual curriculum, starting in kindergarten and going through eighth grade. "In kindergarten and first grade they begin to learn letters and words," says principal Gwynne Bowman. "Many of our children by sixth grade are able to totally converse in Hebrew. They speak it, they read it, they write it." The children also have a regular curriculum of English, reading, math and science, she says, with Hebrew being a part of the dual curriculum that helps children to read the Torah, participate in religious and cultural holidays, and better understand their bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah.
Rick Perles, whose son Aaron is a second grader at New Orleans Jewish Day School, says Hebrew is his son's favorite subject and one in which he excels.
"He's very, very excited about learning Hebrew," Perles says. "He seems to relate to portions from the Torah, terms in literature, more in Hebrew than in English. Sometimes as we discuss those things, he uses the Hebrew words for things instead of the English, although we're primarily speaking in English."
Although Perles learned Hebrew as a child and can make it through services and the prayer book, he says his son's knowledge of the language already far surpasses his. "We were in New York last May and took a trip to Ellis Island. I saw him looking at something, and it was the Torah printed in German and Hebrew. He was reading the Hebrew side. Of all the things in the museum to look at, that is what captured his attention."