When they’re at home, many Jefferson County Public Schools students speak another language. Across the city, there are more than 100 different languages students speak, but the district teaches six, and one of them is Latin.
Kentucky has made small gains to encourage students to study foreign languages, but much of that the work has been overshadowed by changing assessment standards for other subjects. The state’s Department of Education is now competing with a culture that hasn’t necessarily encouraged student’s to learn another language.
Stopher Elementary School held its China Town event this month. The whole school cycled through the gym to barter for goods and students were able to watch a dragon dance and martial arts show. Stopher is the only JCPS school that requires all students to learn Chinese.
Programs like this have become more standard across the country and in pockets of Kentucky enrollment in Chinese has increased, but language studies in general haven’t taken off statewide.
“We’re not in Europe. We don’t need to know German or French and its not readily available to us,” said Keir McEachern, the Chinese teacher at Stopher.
Foreign languages are still seen as a novelty, she said.
“A lot of us view language as like, Oh that’s nice, oh that’s good, you can introduce yourself and you can describe your like and dislikes,” she said.
But becoming proficient in a language will include more than just this.
In JCPS, many students don’t study a language long enough to become proficient. Nearly three-quarters of registered high school students quit taking language classes after two years, just long enough to meet many college entrance requirements.
Kentucky Department of Education world language consultant Jacque Van Houten said if schools want to get serious about making students multilingual, they’ll have to do better.
“What we’d like to see is turning that triangle that has a very narrow point in the elementary stage, and when you get to high school it’s filled with kids just beginning languages, on its end,” said Van Houten.
Plus, making kids proficient could boost the state’s economy, she said.
“The Kentucky World Trade Center tells me they get calls almost on a daily basis asking for translators because companies cannot find workers within their own companies to do this work, to speak languages and have the hard skills that are needed for jobs,” Van Houten said.
KDE wants to make foreign languages a more prominent part of statewide curriculum, but until something is done to get kids excited about learning languages, it’ll be difficult to make students proficient, she said.
“We need to provide more information to counselors to have them think more openly toward languages and in guiding students toward their own choices, but informed choices,” said Van Houten.
Part of that interest may come from media and cultural perceptions, which may explain the recent disinterest in French in JCPS. In 2005 the number of students enrolled in a French high school program in the district was 3,029. That number this year is 2,519. German has also decreased from 565 in 2005 to 385 this year.
Languages with more positive media attention have seen increases, which may explain the rise in Japanese, said JCPS world language specialist Thomas Sauer. Japanese increased from 179 in 2005 to 281 this year.
“It’s pure speculation, but because of pop culture influences right now, there’s a huge Japanese influence on modern pop culture, when it comes to music, the whole idea of the graphic novel, that all comes out of the Japanese realm, and so we see an increase there,” said Sauer.
First grader Ethan Hawes, who took part in Stopher’s China Town, isn’t excited about phonetics and possibilities for jobs, but the simple things that come with learning foreign language.
“You get to learn the characters and that there’s dragons and you get to learn stuff that aren’t American words,” said Hawes.
Van Houten said even in a tech-driven society, human interaction cannot be replaced and when visiting another culture, communicating extends beyond simple translations and interpretations.
“There are going to be differences in that culture that people may react differently to the way you act, that a particular word may not mean the same thing if you say an exact translation of the word,” she said.
Van Houten said learning one language unlocks the door to learning others, or at least makes it easier, but it’s always good to start young, she said.