Standardized test preparation and career training sometimes overshadow foreign language education in Louisiana, although it has been proved that proficiency in speaking a second language increases a student's overall academic achievement — including higher math and verbal standardized test scores — and contributes to cultural awareness, a marketable asset in any career.
According to a study by the National Education Association (NEA) in 2010, global competence stems from proficiency in a foreign language. Not only has the United States' population become increasingly diverse, but so have its trade partners. The U.S. also is involved in finding solutions to problems that plague communities in other countries, including diseases, disasters and environmental concerns, all requiring a grasp of another culture and its language.
Acquiring more than fleeting familiarity in a foreign language begins with the instructor. Ideal foreign language teachers are native speakers who use technology and media, collaborate with other native speakers and incorporate language into core subjects, according to a study by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), a nonprofit organization established in 1959 to improve global communication. The study, Foreign Language Teaching in U.S. Schools: Results of a National Survey (Nancy C. Rhodes and Ingrid Pufahl, November 2010), is a comprehensive nationwide assessment of foreign language programs in kindergarten through 12th grade (researchers collected statistical data in 1987, 1997 and 2008). The study shows trends and changes over the past 20 years and makes recommendations for improvement.
French-immersion school Ecole Bilingue de la Nouvelle-Orleans hires only native French-speaking teachers. Moreover, they obtain materials directly from France and use Skype in the classroom to communicate with French-speaking students in France.
At Lusher Charter School, teachers use a variety of tools and methods to make sure students integrate foreign languages into a range of daily tasks.
"Assessment is very prismatic; it can be a test, reciting a poem or an arts-integrated project," says French teacher Sami Amara. "It depends on the proficiency of the student, down from a simple grammar worksheet to an oral or written presentation. We also test on email and other things that you need in everyday life."
Foreign language department chairwoman and French teacher Mariana Schoen uses Smart Boards (an interactive, electronic replacement for blackboards, movie and overhead projectors, etc.) to teach students about different cultures.
"Smart Boards are windows to the world, and we're lucky to have them in the classroom to watch international videos and news," Schoen says. "If you need to teach a specific part of speech, there are tons of poems and songs that you can bring in and you can teach through them, exposing students to correct pronunciation and a singer they might not know, like Corneille or a singer from another time, like Jacques Brel."
Starting students at a young age is another way to help foster fluency in a foreign language, and is a recommendation of CAL's 2010 report. Most Ecole Bilingue students begin learning French at 2 or 3 years old and can transition smoothly from French to English.
"Since our students begin learning French in school at such a young age, they just think that's the way school is," says Pauline Dides, principal at Ecole Bilingue. "They think that you go to school and you speak in French — so it's not scary for them."
Audubon Charter School, Morris Jeff Community School and Lycee Francais de la Nouvelle Orleans also teach foreign language at the prekindergarten level.
Parents often wonder if foreign language education, especially immersion programs in which students are taught core subjects in a foreign language, will detract from their child's other subjects.
"Parents who didn't attend French school are often worried, but we make sure students can transfer knowledge from French to other subjects," Dides says. "Also, they excel in both French and English standardized tests, and we know that most of them want to go to an English high school or university, and we support that."
Another concern is how parents can help their immersion-program students with school if they don't speak the language.
"We have people from all over the world including Pakistan, Brazil, Colombia, Russia and Japan, who don't speak English or French at home, but make the choice to come here," Dides says. "You can support your child without speaking French at all."
Other local schools with immersion programs include: Audubon Charter School, Hynes Charter School and Lycee Francais de la Nouvelle Orleans, which offer French-immersion programs; International High School, which offers a Spanish-immersion program, and International School of Louisiana, which offers both.
Choosing a distinctive language is a simple way to increase a student's post-graduate job market value. Until recently, many local schools taught mostly foreign Romance languages, including French and Spanish. Some local schools have broken out of that mold and offer other options. International High School offers Arabic and Chinese; Benjamin Franklin High School teaches Chinese, Latin and German; International School of Louisiana teaches core classes in Mandarin; Walter L. Cohen High School offers Chinese; and the Intercultural Charter School, whose student body is almost one-quarter Asian, teaches Vietnamese.
That puts New Orleans ahead of many other places in preparing its young people for successful futures. The study indicated foreign languages in U.S. high schools had remained fairly steady overall, but had dropped substantially in lower grades as well as in public schools. The study authors concluded: "The findings indicate a serious disconnect between the national call to educate world citizens with high-level language skills and the current state of foreign language instruction in schools across the country."