With so many nations ahead of us in permeating (and maneuvering) the communication barrier through foreign language acquisition: What is your district/state/community doing to try to bring American students up to par?
Our school offers French, Spanish, Latin, and Japanese. We hope to add German next year if budget cuts don't come down hard and smash that idea to bits. The students have language clubs as well, where they meet at district, regional, and state level competitions to compete against other students in oral and written language contests as well as events such as costume, music, dance, and other cultural aspects. They love it!
I am familiar with schools and programs in several different states. I have found that schools that offer programs at the younger grades tend to have a much higher success rate in the upper grades. In NY, my daughters had the opportunity to choose between three languages in middle school. By the time they had completed middle school they had already earned a full year of high school credit for foreign language.
At private schools I taught at in both New Mexico and Indiana, we started Spanish in kindergarten. Both schools were fairly small and that was the only choice of foreign language. The high school students were amazed at how much more Spanish their younger siblings understood and maintained.
One thing we emphasized was learning the culture along with the language. For example, we had the students watch Saludos Amigos & Three Caballeros (all ages), and Evita (older students). They prepared and ate foods and made craft projects from Spanish speaking countires. We also watched movies they knew very well, such as Phineas & Ferb, in Spanish and had them see just how much they could translate. WE watched a movie anout traveling with kids in Costa Rica. We also went on a field trip to a Mexican restaurant, where the students were only allowed to talk in Spanish.
Our high school has about 2300 students, and our world languages department offers Chinese, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin. Students are encouraged to take a foreign language in all four years of high school; however, they are only required to take two. The department also offers study abroad and exchange programs--a few of my students last year hosted students from Spain in the spring semester.
We actually only offer 3 languages at our school: Spanish, French and Latin. We did have a Mandarin Chinese class, but due to budget cuts......you know the rest.
Our language dept. is incredible, thanks to the chair. She single-handedly built the Latin program up from the ground, to the point where she no longer assumes a prep period during the school year. We have 35 students in AP Latin this year, which is up from the 3 that were in my class when I took it in 2000-2001! The teacher is originally from Bulgaria, and she says it is her experience in coming to America which helps her navigate the students through a second language. She also teaches it like a spoken language, rather than the dusty, aristocratic perception most people have. My brother-in-law is in her Latin I class this year, and he said he felt like he missed something because she just began speaking to them in Latin. I told him immersion is the best way to learn.
If they don't need to speak anything but English, their enthusiasm to learn it is virtually non-existent. When I take students to Europe every year, they understand two things: they're behind the world curve when they only know one language, and learning another language is cool. It's quite humbling to them that people in other countries not only know more languages but also more about America than they know about any places we travel. Traveling is a huge motivator for my students to learn more of everything, including languages. Everyone can't travel, of course, so starting earlier is really the key. It's easier (since they actually still know what objective case and predicate nominatives are in grade school) and it's much more exciting at that age. By high school, it's often just another chore.
I think the most difficult thing the US faces, as compared to say, Europe, is our lack of cultural necessity to learn languages other than English. Despite the fact that our nation (and MY state of North Carolina) is rapidly adding native Spanish speakers - I feel like many students do not appreciate the importance of learning the language because they are never forced to rely on speaking it.
I have a cousin who married a French man and currently lives in Turkey because of his job. Her kids speak fluent French (with a perfect French accent) and English with a perfect Texas accent. But in the last 2 years, all of them (who are under the age of 10) are speaking Turkish with their neighborhood friends, and the older 2 are learning Italian in school.
I think no matter what our high schools and even universities do to TEACH foreign language - Americans are a long way from a real sense of appreciation and necessity.
Unfortunately, my view of our foreign language education is rather grim. I teach in a school with over 2200 students, but we still offer only two languages, Spanish and French. Students are basically forced into taking Spanish because we have only one French teacher; so most of the honors level students take French.
As Post 3 mentions, other countries start second-language learning much earlier than most American schools. I believe that that is key. When I taught in Korea, I taught kindergartners through adults.
The most significant problem my school faces when it comes to foreign language education is a poor retention rate. We have had so many different Spanish teachers in my school in the 9 years that I've taught there that I can't remember them all. Similarly, we have Spanish teachers from several different countries, and while this a great cultural addition to our school, it creates havoc for continuity. A teacher from Uruguay teaches his students one Spanish dialect, and then the next year, the students might have a Spanish teacher from Spain with a completely different take on the language. It's very confusing to the students.
One last problem--most of my students just aren't motivated to learn a foreign language. Some of them get excited when I speak German to them; so perhaps if we had more offerings, and students felt that they actually got to choose their second language, that would help.
One thing that is happening the other side of the "pond" is that languages are being taught in primary schools (elementary), which is sooner than they have traditionally been taught. Likewise, the range of languages offered has been increased to other less traditional choices for Brits, such as Russian, Japanese, Mandarin etc. I remember when I went to school, French was obligatory, and then we could opt to study Spanish and German if we wanted, but nothing else. Now the range is amazing!
We have some great teachers in our district, and our kids seem to do pretty well, especially with Spanish language, but I would also say our approach to teaching it is pretty traditional, as I suspect most foreign language programs are. Being a small district, and with ever more limited funds, we only offer two languages though, when I think it would be quite valuable to expose students to more.
Our district is still mandating a basal reader program and outdated methods of instruction that we are supposed to follow. What we actually do is always different but we feel we lack support from the administration.