Advocates of foreign language teaching would like to see lessons integrated into the core curriculum rather than treated as electives that can easily be cut at budget time. They also say teaching should start as early as possible – ideally in kindergarten – because academic research shows that young children are more accepting of other cultures and are better able to master the pronunciation and intonation of foreign words. Some even claim that learning a foreign language can promote cognitive skills that lead to higher scores on standardized tests in other subjects.
On Long Island, more than 200 Long Beach residents signed petitions over the summer to oppose the district’s decision to phase out a bilingual English-Spanish program at Lido Elementary School that had served as a model. for other districts.
“I think it’s a terrible shame,” said Sebastian Arengo, a software engineer, whose 6-year-old twin daughters are in the program. “It’s at the right age for kids to speak both languages, and it’s also a great way to bring the English and Spanish speaking communities together here in Long Beach.”
Robert Greenberg, superintendent of the Long Beach district, which has 4,000 students, said the program was created primarily to help Spanish-speaking students learn English through bilingual classes, but has evolved into an immersion program for those who want to learn Spanish. “I have Latino families who want me to teach their children Spanish, but that’s not the intent of the program,” he said.
Independent of the bilingual program, the district has provided 90 minutes per week of Spanish instruction to all kindergarten and first graders since 2007, and plans to expand this program by a year each year. “We made the pedagogical decision to teach Spanish to all children rather than just a few,” he said.
Many superintendents say they remain committed to teaching languages, but just can’t afford to do more right now. In Rockland County, the Clarkstown District, which has 9,400 students, spent about $60,000 last year to hire a full-time Spanish teacher for one of its 10 elementary schools, but postponed its intention to do the same in other schools this fall “until we determine that the economy is better,” said Meg Keller-Cogan, the superintendent.
In Connecticut, the New Hartford District cut its elementary school foreign language teacher Ann Antolini from full-time three days a week to save $35,000. Fewer hours means Spanish will no longer be taught to third and fourth graders. “It was just for budgetary reasons and it was a very painful decision,” said Philip O’Reilly, the superintendent, adding that other staff had reduced hours – and two were made redundant – to reduce the costs.